Type 1 diabetes could begin in the womb, new research suggests

Type 1 diabetes can develop in babies under six months old, and the immune attack behind the condition may begin before they’re born, a new study co-funded by Diabetes UK has suggested for the first time.

Until recently, it was thought that children under six months could only develop neonatal diabetes, which is caused by a genetic mutation affecting insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, and not type 1 diabetes, where the same cells are destroyed by an immune system attack. As people with neonatal and type 1 diabetes need different treatments, it’s incredibly important they get the correct diagnosis.

In research published in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes [EASD], scientists studied a group of children who had developed diabetes before six months, but who didn’t have any of the genetic mutations known to cause neonatal diabetes. The team from the University of Exeter, King’s College London and the Pacific Northwest Research Institute in Seattle wanted to find out if the children in fact had type 1 diabetes.

They compared 166 of these children with children with confirmed neonatal diabetes and a third group who were diagnosed with the condition at an older age (6-24 months). The team studied their genes and immune system, and looked at how much insulin the children could produce on their own. They concluded that the combination of a high genetic risk for type 1 diabetes, signs of an immune attack on insulin-producing cells and low insulin-producing capacity, all point to the existence of the condition in children under six months.

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