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Researchers in Oxford have launched the first UK study in the general population to test for early markers of type 1 diabetes before children develop symptoms or need insulin.

A nurse checking a child for diabetes

The study, which is being offered when children have their pre-school vaccination, involves a finger prick and a few drops of blood.

Early diagnosis can help prevent the life-threatening illness that can occur if type 1 diabetes (T1D) is diagnosed late. Early treatment can avoid the need for intensive care and indeed any hospital admission, and reduce the stress that accompanies an unexpected diagnosis.

T1D is the commonest autoimmune disease of childhood, affecting one in 350 children. It is caused by the destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, resulting in elevated blood sugar levels. This long-term condition results in life-long insulin dependence and increased risk of major health problems, such as heart disease, blindness and kidney failure.

In around a quarter of children with T1D (and in more than half diagnosed during the COVID-19 pandemic), the diagnosis is not made until they become severely unwell, in ‘diabetic ketoacidosis’ (DKA), which results in hospitalisation, and can cause shock, brain swelling and, if untreated, death.

One or two children die every year as a result of a late T1D diagnosis. Beth Baldwin’s son, Peter, was aged 13 when he died of DKA due to a late diagnosis.

Beth, from Cardiff, said: “I am very happy this study has been approved. If testing was standard eight years ago, I wouldn’t be participating now and Peter would still be here. Testing pre-school children will revolutionise type 1 diagnosis and save many lives. Awareness saves lives.

“I am hopeful of a positive outcome that leads to a UK-wide roll-out in the mission to prevent DKA diagnosis of T1 and any fatalities from this condition. This is part of Peter’s legacy.”

Dr Rachel Besser, a paediatric diabetes consultant at Oxford University Hospitals (OUH) and Chief Investigator on the study at the University of Oxford, said: “We now have an accurate test, which just requires a simple finger prick blood sample, that can identify children who will develop T1D before they get any symptoms. So far, the test is proving popular.”

Read the full story on the Department of Paediatrics website. 

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