There are currently 25.8 million Americans living with diabetes, which amounts to about 8.3 percent of the population. Diabetes has turned into an epidemic in the past few decades — from 1.5 million in 1958 to 18.8 million in 2010.

Preventing this epidemic from getting out of hand, however, is still underway. Scientists researching risk factors for diabetes are looking more deeply into how age, genes, and lifestyle may affect people's risks for developing this blood sugar disorder. Meanwhile, a new study published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism has pinpointed a certain protein found in muscle tissue that my play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes.

“My team and I studied PGC-1α, a protein responsible for regulating the production of energy in cells,” Dr. Jennifer Estall, Director of the Molecular Mechanisms of Diabetes research unit at the IRCM, said in a press release. “Surprisingly, we found that young mice lacking this protein in their muscle tissue appeared healthier, as they had lower blood sugar levels before and after meals. So, at first, we thought having less of this protein was actually better.”

The mice were tested at 3, 12, and 24 months of age to discover how the protein or its lack thereof affected overall health. However, the researchers found that as the mice aged, those that lacked PGC-1α actually ended up developing glucose intolerance, and a resistance to insulin, “which are hallmarks of type 2 diabetes,” Estall said. “As a result, we discovered that chronically low levels of this protein in muscle may contribute to the development of diabetes later in life.” Estall and her team also discovered that while PGC-1α was only found in muscle, its presence had an impact on other tissues. The absence of PGC-1α in muscle increased inflammation in the liver and fat tissue, “revealing a novel link between muscle metabolism and the chronic inflammatory state of the body often associated with metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” the press release states.

Diabetes causes blood glucose, or sugar, levels to become much higher than normal. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body isn’t able to properly make insulin, and it is the most common form of diabetes. The body uses insulin to take the sugar from the blood and bring it to the cells. If insulin is lacking and glucose begins to build up in the blood, cells may be starved for energy, and over time high blood glucose can cause serious damage to internal organs.

The risk of developing diabetes increases with age, and is associated with lower oxidative capacity in muscles, the study states. Though a previous study that was published a decade ago analyzed the role of PGC-1α in diabetes, Estall and her team believe their results could be a step forward in developing a targeted treatment for type 2 diabetes. “Our study also suggests that low levels of PGC-1α in muscle could be a promising new way of predicting increased risk of type 2 diabetes at a young age, and drugs to increase the levels of this protein may help prevent or delay the progression of the disease,” Estall said in the press release.