Genetic link to diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at young age

Posted on 28 October 2019

A strand of DNA

A group of scientists at the University of Oxford, led by JDRF-funded Professor John Todd, has found that people who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a very young age are likely to have more changes to key immune system genes than people diagnosed with type 1 later in life.

The findings, published in the journal Diabetes Care, are an important part of the puzzle of how and why type 1 diabetes develops, and could lead to better treatments that are targeted to those diagnosed with the condition at an early age.

Why did they do this research?

We don’t yet know why or how type 1 develops, but we do know that having certain genetic differences can make you more likely to develop the condition.

We also know that people who are diagnosed in early childhood tend to produce less of their own insulin and are more likely to develop complications later in life.

In this JDRF-funded study, the team of scientists wanted to see if people who developed type 1 at an early age had more of these genetic variants than those diagnosed later on in life or not diagnosed at all.

By understanding more about how a person’s genetic make-up affects their risk of developing type 1, scientists may be able to find new treatments for those who develop type 1 in early childhood, which could reduce their risk of complications.

What did they do?

The team, led by JDRF scientist Professor John Todd, put over 9,000 participants with type 1 diabetes into three groups: those that had been diagnosed with type 1 before age seven, those that been diagnosed between age seven and thirteen, and those that had been diagnosed over the age of thirteen. They also had a large group of participants who didn’t have type 1 as a control group.

The scientists then looked at the participants’ genes to see if the key genetic markers for type 1 were found more commonly in people who had been diagnosed before age seven compared to those that were diagnosed later in life and the control group.

What did they find?

The scientists found that, compared to people that were diagnosed after age thirteen, those who had been diagnosed before age seven were likely to have a high number of these genetic risk factors for type 1.

The team explained that many of the changes were to genes involved in the function of specific immune cells that are thought to be involved in the autoimmune attack in type 1.

From this, the researchers suggested that people may develop type 1 at an early age due to genetic differences in the way their immune system works, whereas increased exposure to environmental factors could be more responsible for type 1 development in older people.

What does this mean for type 1?

This research provides an important piece of the puzzle of how and why type 1 diabetes develops. Although further work needs to be done, scientists may be able to use this information to develop drugs that can target the specific immune pathways which lead to type 1 in very young children.

This could lead to new treatments that could better treat the condition in these people, reducing their risk of complications, or potentially even slow or prevent type 1 diabetes developing in the first place.

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