Research funded by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation has indicated that the onset of diabetes might be triggered by a common virus, especially in children who develop the type 1 diabetes.
Dr Alan Foulis, a pathologist in Glasgow, collected data from 72 children who died less than 12 months after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and found that 60 per cent had pancreatic tissue with signs of enteroviruses. Type 1 diabetes affects an estimated 300,000 people in the UK including 20,000 children under the age of 15. Insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system rendering the body unable to control blood glucose levels.
Very few of the 50 children without diabetes that Dr Foulis screened showed any signs of the virus. He also found signs of the infection in the insulin-producing cells of 40 per cent of adults with type 2 diabetes. Together with his team of researchers at the University of Brighton and Peninsula Medical School, Foulis believes that vaccination against enteroviral infection in childhood could reduce the chance of developing either form of diabetes.
Dr Iain Frame, director of research at Diabetes UK called the study, published in Diabetologia, 'a big step forward' in understanding potential triggers of the disease, and was 'hugely excited' by the potential of identifying exactly what the viruses do to infected beta cells.
This research ties in with the findings of scientists from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation/Wellcome Trust Diabetes and Inflammation Laboratory in Cambridge who believe they have discovered rare genetic mutations in the gene IFIH1 which might actually provide protection against diabetes.
Carriers of the four mutations, found in an area of the genome strongly associated with type 1 diabetes, were found to have a decreased risk of developing the disease. The IFIG1 gene produces a protein which targets enterovirus, which is commonly found in newly diagnosed patients with type 1 diabetes. Researchers at Cambridge believe that the enterovirus prompts the immune system to activate, and in doing so, triggers an attack on the body's own insulin-producing cells found in the pancreas. The newly identified mutations of IFIH1 are believed to affect its protein production, thereby offering some protection against the onset of diabetes - a conclusion which requires further research.
Comments from the Foundation for Genomics and Population Health (PHG Foundation) suggest that the proposals for an anti-enteroviral vaccine are somewhat premature in light of there being almost 100 strains of enterovirus. Nevertheless, the research does give a prime example of how genetic and environmental factors may interact to cause disease.