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Can Insulin Prevent Diabetes in Kids?

Giving young children doses of insulin to “educate” their immune systems might work to prevent type-1 diabetes, researchers reported on Tuesday.

A very early trial in a few children who have a high genetic risk of diabetes showed some indications that the approach might work, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Ezio Bonifacio of Dresden Technical University and colleagues tested 25 children at very high genetic risk for type-1 diabetes — the form that develops in childhood and that’s caused when the body mistakenly attacks and kills the insulin-making cells in the pancreas.

“The mechanism seems to be that the immune system is just not seeing insulin appropriately or enough insulin early in life enough to see that it is part of its own body,” Bonifacio said.

“It just makes sense to try and help the immune system by trying to give insulin to these kids,” he added. “We should be able to tell whether this will work and prevent type-1 diabetes.”

The approach works in mice, but humans are far more complicated.

The team gave oral insulin to 15 children and placebo doses to another 10. “We were giving insulin orally to children who hadn’t started the disease process…like sort of a protective vaccination,” Bonifacio said.

They saw signs that might suggest a healthy immune response to the insulin, Bonifacio and colleagues report. The next step will be a bigger trial in more kids to see if the doses really can prevent the development of diabetes.

Other experts noted it will have to be done with care. There’s a chance that giving insulin to very young children could help diabetes develop, rather than preventing it.

Early lessons in the harms of diabetes

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-- Maggie Fox