Being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes very early in life is linked with more changes to immune system genes than for people diagnosed with the condition later in life, according to new research.

The research team were keen to study gene changes in a bid to understand more as to why people diagnosed with type 1 earlier in life typically produce less insulin of their own and are more likely to develop complications of diabetes.

It is hoped that findings from the study, carried out by a team at the University of Oxford, could pave the way for a better understanding of how type 1 diabetes develops.

The researchers, led by Professor John Todd, saw 9,000 people with type 1 diabetes split into three groups depending at what age they had been diagnosed: under sevens, between seven and 13, and over 13. A control group featured people who did not have type 1 diabetes.

The genes of all those taking part were then studied to determine if genetic markers associated with type 1 were more common in those with an early-age diagnosis compared to people diagnosed after the age of 13 and those without type 1.

The results showed that children diagnosed before the age of seven were likely to show a higher number of genetic risk factors for type 1 than children diagnosed from the age of 13.

The genetic differences, the researchers reported, were to genes that related to the function of specific immune cells thought to play a role in the autoimmune attack that characterises type 1 diabetes.

Researchers believe that people may develop type 1 early in life as a result of genetic differences in how their immune system works. A diagnosis later in life is potentially more likely to be due to heightened exposure to a range of environmental factors.

The researchers also suggested that genetic differences may be a greater influence on the development of type 1 diabetes earlier in childhood. By comparison, environmental factors may be a greater influence in the development of type 1 later in life.

The findings of the study could help scientists develop drugs capable of targeting the specific immune pathways associated with the onset of type 1 diabetes in youngsters – reducing the likelihood of complications, or potentially slowing or even preventing the initial development of the condition.

The study is published by the journal, Diabetes Care.

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