updated 7/12/2004 3:10:42 PM ET 2004-07-12T19:10:42

Scientists have discovered a gene mutation that contributes to juvenile diabetes, a discovery that could improve screening for the disease and help identify children at risk.

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The gene mutation — called SUMO-4 — is one of several that have been identified as contributors to type 1 diabetes. The discovery by Medical College of Georgia researchers was published in the journal Nature Genetics on Sunday.

The finding will increase the accuracy of existing newborn diabetes screening, said Concepcion Nierras, associate director of research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

“With this additional information, it helps refine the identification of kids which might be at risk,” Nierras said.

Such early identification can be important.

Morgan Enlow became really sick last January when a severe flu outbreak struck the Augusta area. When her parents took her to the doctor, they found out it wasn’t just the flu — the then-10-year-old’s illness was compounded by having type 1 diabetes.

“The flu was much worse because she was diabetic,” said her mother, Renae Enlow. “The flu was the catalyst for us finding out.”

Early diagnosis important
Medical College researchers took a drop of blood from Morgan and her cousin, Kaitlyn Wheat — who does not have diabetes — to identify the genetic differences between those who have and don’t have the disease.

Morgan is taking part in a second study that will enlist about 5,000 children with type 1 diabetes and their relatives. Researchers are also screening about 40,000 newborns in Augusta, Atlanta, Athens and Aiken, S.C., to identify those with high-risk genes for diabetes.

Researchers hope to follow children with such genes for 15 or 20 years, said Dr. Jin-Xiong She, director of the medical college’s Center for Biotechnology and Genetic Medicine.

The SUMO-4 gene was identified in a study of nearly 1,000 diabetic families.

Identifying at-risk children early enough can make a difference. Today, Morgan wears an insulin pump and the rising sixth-grader enjoys all kinds of activities, from swimming and biking to shopping and cheerleading.

She and her family are happy to contribute to research.

“When you see your child endure the things she endures daily, you want to do what you can to help find a cure,” Renae Enlow said.

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