Determinants of plasma levels of proglucagon and the metabolic impact of glucagon receptor signalling: a UK Biobank study

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AIMS/HYPOTHESES: Glucagon and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) are derived from the same precursor; proglucagon, and dual agonists of their receptors are currently being explored for the treatment of obesity and metabolic dysfunction-associated steatotic liver disease (MASLD). Elevated levels of endogenous glucagon (hyperglucagonaemia) have been linked with hyperglycaemia in individuals with type 2 diabetes but are also observed in individuals with obesity and MASLD. GLP-1 levels have been reported to be largely unaffected or even reduced in similar conditions. We investigated potential determinants of plasma proglucagon and associations of glucagon receptor signalling with metabolic diseases based on data from the UK Biobank.

METHODS: We used exome sequencing data from the UK Biobank for ~410,000 white participants to identify glucagon receptor variants and grouped them based on their known or predicted signalling. Data on plasma levels of proglucagon estimated using Olink technology were available for a subset of the cohort (~40,000). We determined associations of glucagon receptor variants and proglucagon with BMI, type 2 diabetes and liver fat (quantified by liver MRI) and performed survival analyses to investigate if elevated proglucagon predicts type 2 diabetes development.

RESULTS: Obesity, MASLD and type 2 diabetes were associated with elevated plasma levels of proglucagon independently of each other. Baseline proglucagon levels were associated with the risk of type 2 diabetes development over a 14 year follow-up period (HR 1.13; 95% CI 1.09, 1.17; n=1562; p=1.3×10 -12). This association was of the same magnitude across strata of BMI. Carriers of glucagon receptor variants with reduced cAMP signalling had elevated levels of proglucagon (β 0.847; 95% CI 0.04, 1.66; n=17; p=0.04), and carriers of variants with a predicted frameshift mutation had higher levels of liver fat compared with the wild-type reference group (β 0.504; 95% CI 0.03, 0.98; n=11; p=0.04).

CONCLUSIONS/INTERPRETATION: Our findings support the suggestion that glucagon receptor signalling is involved in MASLD, that plasma levels of proglucagon are linked to the risk of type 2 diabetes development, and that proglucagon levels are influenced by genetic variation in the glucagon receptor, obesity, type 2 diabetes and MASLD. Determining the molecular signalling pathways downstream of glucagon receptor activation may guide the development of biased GLP-1/glucagon co-agonist with improved metabolic benefits.

DATA AVAILABILITY: All coding is available through

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 May 2024

Bibliographical note

© 2024. The Author(s).

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