Children at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes in adult life could be identified earlier due to new insights about the genetic factors behind the emergence of the condition.

The biological and physiological factors which lead to the development of type 2 diabetes in adults have been pinpointed in children, according to a study by the University of Plymouth and Nestlé.

The findings came from a study called EarlyBird, which has involved tracking 300 healthy youngsters from Plymouth over the course of 15 years to examine their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The children were monitored from aged five to early adulthood, with the researchers investigating how their metabolism changes during growth.

This study was published in the Diabetes Care publication, with the results of wider research appearing in a series of peer-reviewed scientific journals.

According to this finding, dysfunction of the insulin-producing beta cells was the earliest event to occur that lead to being at high risk of type 2 diabetes, with this factor being independent of body weight. Beta-cell dysfunction was associated with the presence of genetic factors previously associated with type 2 diabetes in adults, researchers also revealed.

Professor Jon Pinkney, based at the university, said: “The rapidly rising prevalence of type 2 diabetes is one of the biggest global health challenges, and there is an urgent need to develop effective strategies for early intervention and prevention.

“The research partnership between University of Plymouth and Nestlé has shown how the risks of future type 2 diabetes can be predicted in childhood. This opens up the possibility of individualised advice and early intervention to reduce the risks of future type 2 diabetes.”

François-Pierre Martin, leader of the collaboration at Nestlé Research, said: “In this study we show that beta-cell dysfunction is an early event in the onset of prediabetes in children and that this effect is body weight independent. However, we also report in this study that subsequent weight gain during puberty aggravates the progression from prediabetes to diabetes. This stresses the importance of lifestyle and nutritional interventions in childhood to reduce the risks to develop diabetes.”

Genetics expert at Nestlé Research Jörg Hager added: “The new findings will allow us to develop new nutritional approaches that target the insulin response to a meal, and the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar level.”

The ability to identify predisposition towards type 2 diabetes, prediabetes and gestational diabetes is a valuable ability when it comes to healthcare, opening up great potential for prevention, and could even help in more personalised care.

Earlier this month it was reported on how a computer algorithm was able to predict gestational diabetes. Researchers from the Israel-based Weizmann Institute of Science created the software which can identify women at high risk of developing the condition.

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