Past studies have shown an association between the common enterovirus and type 1 diabetes in children and young people. Enteroviruses are common in children, and cause mild or no symptoms, much like a cold or a mild case of the flu.
The new study found that enterovirus was present in the pancreas of a majority of children who died from type 1 diabetes. Enterovirus may lead to destruction of insulin producing cells n the pancreas, causing type 1 diabetes in young people.
The study, published in the European diabetes journal, Diabetologia, provides details of how the pancreas of youth who died one year after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, contained evidence of enteroviral infection in the insulin producing cells in the pancreas (beta cells).
Studies involving identical twins show there is something else associated with type 1 diabetes in children beyond genetic predisposition. When one identical twin is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, the other only has a 40% chance of type 1 diabetes.
The current study showed that enterovirus was rarely found in the pancreas of children without type 1 diabetes. Sixty percent of the children with type 1 diabetes whose organs were examined contained evidence of enterovirus in the beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin.
Extending the study further, the researchers also found that forty percent of adults with type 2 diabetes also had enterovirus infection in their pancreas. Rather than destroying insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, as might be the case in type 1 diabetes that affects children, enterovirus may interfere with insulin production from beta cells in adult onset, type 2 diabetes.
The researchers say much like rejection of a transplanted organ, the body responds to infection with enterovirus by rejecting the affected organ. Children who develop type 1 diabetes may be experiencing the body’s rejection of beta cells in the pancreas, induced by the foreign enterovirus.
Noel Morgan, professor at the Peninsula Medical School in England says, “We are genuinely excited by the findings of our study. This is the first time that scientists have been able to provide such extensive evidence for the relationship between enteroviral infection of the beta cells and the development of type 1 diabetes. This is due in large part to the unique availability of such a large number of pancreas from young people who had died of type 1 diabetes soon after becoming ill.”
Dr. Morgan hopes the findings will lead to a vaccine to prevent type 1 diabetes in children, and possibly type 2 diabetes in adults. In the past, there were no tests sensitive enough to detect enterovirus in the pancreas. “It is only very recently that techniques of sufficient sensitivity to detect the virus in such specimens have been developed. The success of this study is largely down to the excellent scientific collaboration we have enjoyed", says pathologist , Dr Alan Foulis of the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow.
Type 1 diabetes takes a lifetime toll on children, and can lead to death – currently, there are no known methods of prevention.
The study showing that enterovirus may cause diabetes in children, may bring us a bit closer to curing type 1 diabetes that affects approximately 440,000 children worldwide. The enterovirus and type 1 diabetes connection in children may also bring hope for treating type 2 diabetes in adults.