Vitamin A Transport Protein May Be Early Warning Sign of Diabetes

BOSTON ? High levels of retinol binding protein 4 (RBP4), which transports vitamin A as its main job, may be an early warning sign for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, according to researchers here.

BOSTON, June 15 ? High levels of retinol binding protein 4 (RBP4), which transports vitamin A as its main job, may be an early warning sign for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, according to researchers here.

Serum levels of retinol binding protein 4 (RBP4) are correlated with insulin resistance in a range of patients at risk for diabetes, found Barbara Kahn, M.D., of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, and colleagues.

What's more, therapeutic interventions that lowered insulin resistance also lowered serum RBP4 levels, Dr. Kahn and colleagues reported in the June 15 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Kahn's lab showed last year that RBP4, in animals, can actually cause insulin resistance. In this study, they looked at three cohorts of patients, trying to tease out the link between RBP4 and insulin resistance in humans.

The first cohort consisted of people with obesity, impaired glucose tolerance, or frank diabetes. The researchers compared their serum RBP4 with levels found in the second cohort, a group of non-obese healthy participants.

Mean serum levels were elevated in both the diabetic and non-diabetic obese participants, compared with the healthy controls, and were:

  • Significantly correlated with body mass index (at P=0.001).
  • Significantly correlated with fasting insulin (at P

In an accompanying editorial, Kenneth Polonsky, M.D., of Washington University in St. Louis, called the findings "interesting and important," said but fall short of defining what role RBP4 plays in the pathogenesis of diabetes.

It could be that the protein is just a biomarker that's correlated with insulin resistance or it could have a causal role, Dr. Polonsky said, but the cross-sectional design of Dr. Kahn and colleagues' study does not permit conclusions to be drawn either way.

However, he said, the study raises questions that should prompt future investigation, including:

  • What signaling pathways inhibited or stimulated by RBP4 could affect insulin activity?
  • Is genetic variation in the gene for RBP4 linked to variation in the risk of insulin resistance or diabetes?
  • Can administration of a synthetic retinoid, which reduces serum RBP4 levels, improve insulin sensitivity?