Aug. 17, 2000 -- Some children who gain weight very quickly during their first year of life may be more likely to develop diabetes during childhood, according a team of researchers in the Netherlands.
"This finding does not mean you should eat less as a baby," Jan G. Bruining, MD, tells WebMD. "The increase in infant growth is likely to be related to a genetic potential, not increased food. To use an analogy, the fuel intake of these infants is fine, but their internal carburetor is somehow set to 'increased growth.'" Bruining is a professor at the University of Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
According to a research letter he wrote, published in the medical journal The Lancet, a research team looked at growth information on 91 children who had been newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. They found that children with diabetes had put on more weight during their first year of life than children who did not go on to develop diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes, occurs during childhood or adolescence. Children with this disorder must have daily insulin shots to control their blood sugar. This type of diabetes is much more rare than type 2 diabetes, which is most common in overweight people over the age of 40.
"This research does not mean that obesity causes type 1 diabetes," Richard Furlanetto, MD, tells WebMD. "They are simply associated, and there could be many possible reasons for this association." Furlanetto is scientific director of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester, both in New York.
For example, it may be that a genetic predisposition for increased growth contributes to the development of antibodies in the body that kill off cells in the pancreas, the organ that produces insulin. In fact, the researchers did find more of these types of abnormal antibodies in children who grew rapidly before their first birthdays.
Bruining hopes that this finding will help in the search for genetic factors connected to increased growth in infancy. "Hopefully, this will lead to better tools to predict childhood diabetes," he says.
His study is limited to one group of children, all of Dutch descent, in one country. The next step is to check these results in other groups of people and other countries, Bruining and Furlanetto agree.
Eventually, this study may help pediatricians identify high-risk children and suggest ways to prevent or control childhood diabetes, says Lois Jovanovic, MD. If we learn that the pancreas malfunctions early in life, leading to the production of these abnormal antibodies, we might find ways to fight this effect, he says. Jovanovic is the director of the Sansum Medical Research Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"This finding is important for the research community, which is trying to understand the causes and progression of the disease," says Furlanetto. "However, there are so many overweight infants that overweight by itself is not a good indicator of whether a child is likely to develop diabetes."
Families that include one member with type 1 diabetes are at increased risk for additional cases, he says. "Those families should consider enrolling in the Diabetes Prevention Trial, which is currently recruiting participants," he says.
This trial is a large research project involving 350 sites in the United States and Canada, designed to find out whether it's possible to delay or prevent type 1 diabetes. About 100,000 nondiabetic relatives of people who have this type of diabetes will be screened to determine whether they're at increased risk, by checking for the presence of certain antibodies. Those who qualify will participate in a research project to test different methods of prevention. For more information, call the trial's central information office at (800) 425-8361, or consult your doctor.
For more information from WebMD, see our Diseases and Conditions page on Diabetes.