Heel-prick blood test could predict type 1 diabetes in children

Heel-prick blood test could predict which children will develop type 1 diabetes, say scientists who can spot early warnings of the condition in the genes and chemicals in the body

  • UK and US researchers said up to 75% of cases could be spotted using the test 
  • Average child is in their mid-teens by the time they are diagnosed with disease
  • By which time four in 10 will have already developed dangerous symptoms

A heel-prick blood test could predict which children will develop Type 1 diabetes, scientists say. 

UK and US researchers said up to 75 per cent of cases of the disease could be diagnosed by scouring the blood for biomarkers of the condition.

The average child is in their mid-teens by the time they are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, by which time four in 10 will have developed dangerous symptoms. 

Heel-prick tests are already used in Britain to check for nine rare but serious conditions, including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease.

Scientists from the University of Exeter and the Pacific Northwest Research Institute in Seattle, who did the study, are pushing for diabetes to be included on the list of conditions. 

They are currently testing their test in clinical trials at hospitals in Washington.

A heel-prick blood test could predict which children will develop Type 1 diabetes, scientists say (file)

For the latest study, researchers drew on data from the Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY) Study.

The TEDDY study followed 7,798 children at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes from birth over nine years.

The researchers analsyed the childrens’ records and found that children who developed the disease had large amounts of islet autoantibodies, biomarkers that appear when the pancreas is damaged, in their body.

What are Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes? 

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes the insulin producing cells in the pancreas to be destroyed, preventing the body from being able to produce enough insulin to regulate blood glucose levels.

If the amount of glucose in the blood is too high, it can, over time, seriously damage the body’s organs.

Patients diagnosed with type 1 are treated with insulin.

It has sometimes be referred to as juvenile diabetes, but the term regarded as outdated because the condition can develop at any age.  

Type 2 diabetes is a condition which causes a person’s blood sugar to get too high.

Over 4 million people in the UK are thought to have some form of diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is associated with being overweight and you may be more likely to get it if it’s in the family.

The condition means the body does not react properly to insulin – the hormone which controls absorption of sugar into the blood – and cannot properly regulate sugar glucose levels in the blood.

Excess fat in the liver increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes as the buildup makes it harder to control glucose levels, and also makes the body more resistant to insulin.

Weight loss is the key to reducing liver fat and getting symptoms under control. 

They said they were able to use this approach to ‘dramatically improve prediction of which children would develop Type 1 diabetes’.

Type 1 diabetes is caused when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to regulate the body’s blood-sugar levels.

It’s different from Type 2 diabetes, which has been linked to obesity and eating too much sugar, causing the body to become resistant to insulin. 

Type 1 diabetes is much less common than Type 2, affecting approximately 10 per cent of all diabetes patients worldwide.

As many as four in 10 children with Type 1 diabetes suffer ketoacidosis, when acidic substances called ketones build up to dangerous levels in the blood.

Although there are preventive treatments, they are rarely used because it is difficult to determine which children are at highest risk until diabetes manifests itself – by which time it’s too late. 

Identifying which children are at highest risk will also benefit clinical trials on drugs that are showing promise in preventing the condition, the scientist say. 

Dr Lauric Ferrat at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: ‘At the moment, 40 per cent of children who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes have the severe complication of ketoacidosis.

‘For the very young this is life-threatening, resulting in long intensive hospitalisations and in some cases even paralysis or death.

‘Using our new combined approach to identify which babies will develop diabetes can prevent these tragedies, and ensure children are on the right treatment pathway earlier in life, meaning better health.’

Professor William Hagopian of the Pacific Northwest Research Institute, said: ‘We’re really excited by these findings. 

‘They suggest that the routine heel prick testing of babies done at birth, could go a long way towards preventing early sickness as well as predicting which children will get type 1 diabetes years later.

‘We’re now putting this to the test in a trial in Washington State. We hope it will ultimately be used internationally to identify the condition as early as possible, and to power efforts to prevent the disease.’

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