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Pregnant woman of South Asian decent sitting under a tree.
Our researchers have found that genetic risk factors are strongly associated with gestational diabetes amongst people of South Asian descent, and are not connected to other known diabetes risk factors. (Stock photo)
December 16, 2022

Study finds that South Asian individuals have high genetic risk of gestational diabetes

Hamilton researchers have found that genetic factors are strongly associated with the development of gestational diabetes among people of South Asian ancestry.

This is the first time genome-wide genetic factors have been tested together with other known gestational diabetes risk factors, such as age, body mass index, diet quality, birth country, and the number of times an individual has given birth. Study results show that genetic risk operates independently of these other risk factors and are strongly associated with gestational diabetes amongst people of South Asian descent.

“This is an important finding and may help South Asians take preventative health measures during pregnancy.”

The South Asian community is the fastest growing ethnic group in Canada and refers to those who have ancestors from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. South Asians have amongst the highest rates of gestational diabetes worldwide, which is why this is an important discovery.

Developing diabetes during pregnancy

Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy and affects how the body uses sugar. To keep both the pregnant person and baby healthy, blood sugar levels can be managed with diet, exercise and medication if needed. Typically, gestational diabetes is temporary, with blood sugar levels returning to normal after the baby is born. However, it does leave the individual at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.

Researchers from the Population Health Research Institute (PHRI) of Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and McMaster University analyzed the DNA of more than 5,000 pregnant South Asians from the PHRI study South Asian Birth Cohort and a study from the UK called Born in Bradford.

Prevent pregnancy complications

Headshot of Sonia Anand

Dr. Sonia Anand

Dr. Sonia Anand, senior scientist at PHRI, vascular medicine specialist at HHS and professor of medicine at McMaster University, is the study’s senior author.

“This is an important finding and may help South Asians take preventative health measures during pregnancy,” she says. “However, despite genetic risk factors predicting gestational diabetes independently from other risk factors, future evaluation is needed to confirm if the connection between genetic risk and a low diet quality that we observed in our study is real. If so, more proscriptive dietary advice can be given to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes in South Asians.”

Anand adds that creating a risk score using genetic factors, family history of diabetes, prior gestational diabetes history and diet quality could improve how individuals are identified as higher risk for developing gestational diabetes. In doing so, this can help prevent complications later in pregnancy.

This study was published in the journal eLife.