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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A nationwide study to determine if diabetes can be prevented or delayed in people at high risk is being launched by the University of Tennessee-Memphis and 24 other medical centers.

The National Institutes of Health announced Monday plans to recruit 4,000 participants who have a condition known as “impaired glucose tolerance,” sometimes a precursor to diabetes.

“We hope we can determine which of two methods — two new drugs or lifestyle changes — is better for preventing diabetes,” said Dr. Abbas Kitabchi, UT’s chief of endocrinology and metabolism.

“It’s really a prevention study,” said Dr. William Applegate, director of UT-Memphis’ Clinical Research Center and chairman of preventive medicine.

“Persons with impaired glucose tolerance are not really that sick. They may be a little higher risk than the normal population, but we don’t think of them as having diabetes.”

People with IGT have high blood sugar, but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes, the leading cause of blindness, amputation, kidney failure, heart attacks and strokes in adults in the United States.

Kitabchi, the study’s chief investigator at UT-Memphis, said at least 7 to 10 percent of the people being recruited for the study are at risk of developing diabetes each year.

“We also want to know if these people who develop diabetes will have complications such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease problems.”

With diabetes, the body cannot effectively use insulin, the hormone that regulates how cells use sugar from food. As a result, blood sugar levels can build to dangerously high levels, causing damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart.

“There’s a lot of data to support the fact that we may well be able to prevent the development of diabetes in people (with IGT), particularly if they lose weight and assume a healthier life style,” Applegate said. “Also, there are certain drugs that probably help prevent diabetes.”

The study will evaluate the effectiveness of two diabetes drugs — metformin and troglitazone, both of which have been proven in smaller studies to lower blood sugar and help prevent progression of IGT to diabetes.

The study’s national chairman, Dr. David Nathan, said an estimated 35 to 40 percent of those in the study would develop diabetes without any intervention.

About 15 million Americans have diabetes and half of them don’t know it, Nathan said. Another 21 million who have IGT develop diabetes.

The NIH says the incidence of diabetes in the U.S. has tripled the last 30 years as “baby boomers have continued to age, gain weight and remain inactive,” said Dr. Frank Vinicor, president of the American Diabetes Association.

Among the 25 participating medical centers are Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Northwestern University Medical School.

The $150 million, five-year study is funded by the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Diabetes Association.

Contact: Mary Beth Murphy (901-767-4200)