The research groups have analysed blood samples from umbilical cords and compared the level of a group of fats known as phospholipids. The results of the studies show that low levels of phospholipids increase the risk of the child developing the autoimmune disease type 1 diabetes early in life.
The studies are relatively small, and before any recommendations can be given, the results must be verified in larger, observational clinical trials. However, the findings are interesting, according to the researchers behind the studies. They hope to start clinical trials next year.
“In the long term, the studies raise the question of nutritional supplements in pregnancy, just as supplements of folic acid are currently recommended”, says Åke Lernmark, Professor of Experimental Diabetes Research at Lund University Diabetes Centre and one of the authors of the Swedish study.
The study compared levels of phospholipids in the cord blood of 76 healthy children and 76 who had developed type 1 diabetes before the age of eight. Phospholipids are a type of fat that we get from the food we eat. Foods rich in phospholipids include soya beans and egg yolk. Phospholipids can also be taken as a nutritional supplement.
The two groups of 76 children were matched to each other in pairs. Factors taken into account included gender, birth weight, and age of mother as well as genetic risk profile for type 1 diabetes. The one major difference was the development of diabetes.
“The most important result was that the children who developed the disease before the age of five had been born with a deficiency of phospholipids. This is interesting because we know that the immune system is dependent on phospholipids”, says Åke Lernmark, continuing:
“It may be the case that the deficiency of phospholipids weakens the cells that are supposed to protect us from autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.”
A definite connection was only observed among those children who developed diabetes before the age of five, not among the older children in the study. One explanation could be that there were too few children in that group to achieve statistical significance.
“However, it could also be the case that there is a different disease mechanism among the youngest children that has a more aggressive course. We don’t know yet”, says Åke Lernmark.
The Finnish study, in which cord blood from 39 diabetic children and 39 healthy children was compared, the researchers found a connection between a deficiency of phospholipids and type 1 diabetes. The fact that two independent studies have achieved the same results reinforces the connection.
“Before we know whether expectant mothers should take supplements of phospholipids during pregnancy to reduce the risk of diabetes, our results need to be verified in clinical trials on pregnant women, and before that we need to find out if there are risks associated with excess intake of phospholipids”, says Åke Lernmark, who hopes that Lund University Diabetes Centre can start this type of study sometime next year.
‘Decreased cord-blood phospholipids in young age at onset type 1 diabetes’
Åke Lernmark, Professor of Experimental Diabetes Research, Lund University
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