Doctor takes blood on the analysis

New research suggests that the development of type 1 diabetes could start as early as within the womb.

The researchers, led by Prof Zvi Laron of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, carried out blood tests on 107 pregnant women without diabetes to look for evidence of islet cell autoantibodies, a marker of increased likelihood that type 1 diabetes may occur in future years. The researchers found that samples of umbilical cord blood that contained GAD65 antibodies indicated damage to the pancreas of babies caused by the body’s own immune system (autoimmune response).

It was found, during the study, that within winter months, around 1 in 10 of the pregnant women without diabetes tested positive for the autoantibodies. The researchers suggest that either viral infections in the mother could have effects on the developing baby, or that the antibodies in the mother could be passed onto the fetus.

The hypothesis that type 1 diabetes may originate in the womb will require more research to confirm or disprove it but it is certainly an interesting, and potentially important, avenue of research. If the hypothesis is shown to be proven, in future, it opens the possibility of giving preventative vaccinations prior to conception.

The discovery could also have wider implications for other autoimmune diseases, including coeliac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. If the cause of type 1 diabetes, or any other autoimmune disease can be understood, it is likely that this will mean a breakthrough for other autoimmune diseases too.

Prof Laron states: “There is no cure for this diabetes, so true intervention would be important not only medically but also psychologically and financially, as the costs of the lifelong treatment of this chronic disease and other autoimmune diseases are great.”