May 02, 2018 By Elizabeth McCammon

It is normal for our cells to die throughout our lives as our bodies grow and develop. However, researchers in Sweden have found an indicator in the blood that can be used to measure the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The indicator comes from unique sensors on the surface of cells called “death receptors,” which trigger cells to self-destruct for a range of reasons, including in response to certain circumstances (for example, after an infection, when white blood cells that have fought a virus are to be removed because they are no longer needed).

The researchers looked at the connections between different factors—age, body mass index, blood fats, blood sugar, and blood pressure—and three specific types of death receptors in blood samples from 4,742 people. Samples taken from people in the 1990s were compared with their risk of having diabetes, heart attack, or stroke in the following 20 years.

The results showed that among people who did not have diabetes at the beginning of the study, high levels of death receptors were linked with an increased risk of later developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

In their study, published in EbioMedicine, the researchers explained that high levels of blood sugar and blood fats cause stress to the body’s blood vessels and insulin producing cells. Over the long term, this stress damages the cells and can cause the death receptors to trigger cells to self-destruct.

The researchers concluded that high levels of death receptors in the blood could be used to measure ongoing tissue damage and to predict the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They hope these findings can be used in future studies or in the development of treatments to prevent these conditions.

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