The study – led by researchers at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Institute and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Adelaide – is the biggest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and is now recruiting women in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.
Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common childhood onset chronic diseases, affecting at least 120,000 Australians. It’s caused by the body’s immune system, which attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas – but the actual reasons for this remain unknown.
The study, looking at environmental exposures during pregnancy through to early childhood, will investigate how the world we live in could be contributing to the development of the autoimmune response and type 1 diabetes.
“We believe children are exposed in very early life to the environmental triggers that lead to type 1 diabetes – perhaps even before they’re born,” says the study’s Principal Investigator, Professor Jennifer Couper from the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Institute and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
The national study is called the Environmental Determinants of Islet Autoimmunity (ENDIA) study. It’s funded by a $1.08 million grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and a further US$493,500 grant from the international Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
ENDIA researchers will investigate the relationship between genes and environmental exposures, including nutrition, exercise, weight gain, viral infections, and the microbiome – the term given to the trillions of micro-organisms that are in our bodies.
“If we can better understand how our environment, including its harmful or protective effects, is contributing to type 1 diabetes, it’s hoped that preventions and new therapies will be developed,” Professor Couper says.
ENDIA’s Professor Len Harrison, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, says: “The microbiome plays a key role in regulating our immune system and metabolism. We’re interested to know whether there are changes in the microbiome of mothers during pregnancy or of young children that may be linked to the development of type 1 diabetes.”
The study is looking for: pregnant women whose unborn baby has a first-degree relative with type 1 diabetes. This could be the mother herself, the baby’s father or an older sibling of the baby. Newborn babies less than six months old with a first-degree relative with type 1 diabetes are also eligible for the study.