Babies under six months can develop type 1 diabetes, and the condition may begin to take root before they are born, according to scientists.
It was previously thought infants who are less than six months old could only develop neonatal diabetes – which is caused by a genetic mutation that affects the pancreas cells which produce insulin.
But researchers now believe younger babies can also develop type 1 diabetes, a condition where the body’s own immune system mistakenly destroys the same insulin-producing cells.
They say the findings, published in the journal Diabetologia, raise the question of whether the immune attack behind type 1 diabetes could begin in the womb for some infants, leading to reduced insulin production and consequently lower birth weight, thus “challenging what we know about the immune system”.
Dr Elizabeth Robertson, director of research at Diabetes UK – which co-funded the research – said: “By revealing for the first time the existence of type 1 diabetes in the very first few months of life, these important findings rewrite our understanding of when the condition can strike and when the immune system can start to go wrong.
“We now need to piece together how and why type 1 diabetes can develop at such a young age.
“This could also unlock crucial insights into causes of type 1 diabetes more generally in people of all ages, and will be essential to develop treatments that stop or prevent this life-altering condition in babies.”
The research was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Exeter and King’s College London. Dr Matthew Johnston, Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, said: “This study proves that type 1 diabetes can present in the first few months of life, and in a tiny subset of infants may even begin before birth.
“We also found that diabetes diagnosed so young was associated with rapid progression to complete destruction of insulin-producing beta cells.”