Measuring pancreatic fat with MRS may help predict diabetes
5 October 2009
Scientists at UT Southwestern Medical Center in the US have used an
imaging technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to
measure the amount of pancreatic fat in humans.
Researchers have long suspected that overweight people tend to have
large fat deposits in their pancreases, but they’ve been unable to
confirm or calculate how much fat resides there because of the organ’s
Though scientists worldwide already use MRS to investigate a number
of diseases including breast cancer and epilepsy, this is the first
group in the US to successfully use the noninvasive method to measure
Findings from the study, which are published in the Journal of
Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, suggest that measuring
pancreatic fat content in people could one day serve as an effective
clinical tool to identify those at high risk of diabetes and monitor
interventions designed to prevent the disease.
“These are very early results, but if they hold true, pancreatic MRS
would be a fast and noninvasive test to screen people at risk for
diabetes either because they’re obese or they have a family history of
type 2 diabetes, or metabolic syndrome,” said Dr. Ildiko Lingvay,
assistant professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern and lead
author of the study.
“It could potentially tell physicians which patients are most likely
to develop diabetes in the near future and thus are in need of more
MRS is a specialized technique similar to magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI). It uses no radiation and is completely noninvasive. The test
generally takes 20 to 30 minutes. Whereas an MRI can tell clinicians
where a tumour is located, MRS can tell those physicians whether the
tumour is malignant by providing biochemical information about specific
tissues in the body rather than simply detecting the existence of those
tissues, Dr Lingvay said.
For this study, researchers used MRS to measure the amount of
pancreatic fat in 79 adult volunteers. The research team obtained
duplicate measurements one to two weeks apart from 33 study participants
to make sure the results could be replicated over time.
The volunteers were divided into four groups according to their body
mass index (BMI) and glucose tolerance. BMI is a weight-to-height ratio
commonly used in to gauge obesity. A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 25;
someone with a BMI of 40 or more is considered morbidly obese. All
participants underwent numerous physical measurements including height,
weight and blood pressure in addition to extensive clinical evaluations.
Using MRS, the researchers found that the overweight and obese
volunteers had significantly more pancreatic fat than did those in the
lean group. The volunteers who had similar BMIs but had already
developed either pre-diabetes or diabetes had even more pancreatic fat.
MRS has not been approved for routine clinical use, but Dr. Lingvay
said this research shows that it could be a very valuable tool for
studying the pancreas without a biopsy. “This technology represents a
good opportunity for clinicians to pursue research that hasn’t been
possible because of the lack of advanced tools,” she said.
The next step, Dr. Lingvay said, is to determine whether reducing the
amount of fat in the pancreas lowers diabetes risk.
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