Personalized medicine research focuses on Hispanics with diabetes in South Texas


By Jaelyn Lyles, Office of Public Affairs

Dr. Absalon Gutierrez - Diabetes Study
Absalon Gutierrez, MD

A team of researchers studying genetic data to identify hormone responses in a population of Mexican Americans with prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity recently received a $3.5 million grant to fund a five-year study set to begin in late 2021.

The award to UTHealth Houston is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health (R01DK127084).

Researchers anticipate information about hormone responses will lead to the development of personalized medicine for people with diabetes and other related diseases.

“This study is significant to obtaining precision medicine for the Hispanic population living with diabetes or at high risk for diabetes,” said Absalon Gutierrez, MD, principal investigator and associate professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism. “Many types of medicine currently exist to treat diabetes, and some may also treat related diseases. With so much individual variation, it is unclear which medications are best to start early. This project will help us guide optimal treatments for diabetes, prediabetes, and related diseases during early stages at the individual level.”

The research uses genetic data and physiologic testing to identify patient responses to semaglutide, a synthetic analog of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). GLP-1 increases the secretion of insulin, which is a hormone that lowers glucose, or blood sugar. In addition to treating diabetes, the hormone also shows benefits in weight loss as well as cardiovascular and renal risk reduction, according to Gutierrez. The researchers will be studying the hormone reaction in research subjects to advance the development of personalized medicine for the affected population in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Cameron County Hispanic Cohort (CCHC), established in 2004 by UTHealth School of Public Health-Brownsville, continuously samples 5,000 individuals in the difficult-to-reach, predominately Hispanic population living in communities along the Texas/Mexico border. It has been used as a proxy for the growing Hispanic population in the U.S. Previous studies have uncovered information about the prevalence of diabetes and associated risk factors like obesity within the population.

According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report 2020, The U.S. national estimate of adults with diabetes is 13%, and 15.3% of adults were told they have prediabetes by a health professional. Published studies by UTHealth School of Public Health-Brownsville researchers focused on the CCHC population found the prevalence of diabetes to be 28% and prediabetes to be 37%.

Enrollment for the study has begun for individuals within the CCHC but will potentially open for the broader Rio Grande Valley community in the future, according to Gutierrez.

Co-investigators from UTHealth School of Public Health-Brownsville include Miryoung Lee, PhD, MPH, associate professor; Susan Fisher-Hoch, MD, professor; and Joseph McCormick, MD, professor and holder of the James H. Steele, DVM, Professorship. Rose Gowen, MD, associate professor of internal medicine at McGovern Medical School, is also a co-investigator. Vanderbilt University’s Jennifer Below, PhD, associate professor of medicine, is directing the genetic analyses for the study.