By Jane Weaver Health editor
updated 2/25/2005 4:37:27 PM ET 2005-02-25T21:37:27

A new report sheds light on why infants with low birth weight face greater odds of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. In a study of mice, researchers at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston found that poor prenatal nutrition permanently affects the ability of the body to produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar.

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The findings should prompt parents of tiny babies — and the children themselves as they grow up — to pay special attention to recommended ways of preventing diabetes, such as exercising and not overeating, the researchers said.

Premature babies and full-term babies with low birth weight (typically defined as under five-and-a-half pounds) have been shown in previous studies to develop poor blood-sugar control later in life, but the cause has been unclear.

The study unexpectedly found an impairment in the ability of the cells of the pancreas to produce insulin, according to Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Patti, a Joslin researcher and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease, affecting an estimated 18 million Americans, and can lead to heart disease and stroke. It occurs when either the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the body's cells ignore or resist the insulin, a hormone needed for the body to use sugar.

Study details
In the lab, the researchers provided one group of pregnant mice with all the food they wanted while restricting another group's nourishment in the final week of their three-week pregnancies.

At birth, the babies of the food-restricted group weighed 23 percent less than the others, according to results published in the March issue of the journal Diabetes.

All the baby mice were fed the same diet, but as the low-birth-weight group matured they showed abnormally high levels of blood sugar, the equivalent of full-blown diabetes in humans. The researchers then discovered an impairment of the pancreas to make insulin, and that impairment wasn't corrected even when the mice reached normal weight.

Focus on prevention
"Because there's a permanent change in the pancreas' ability to make insulin, people with a history of low birth weight should be especially focused on prevention," says Patti. "We know that preventive strategies for people at high risk for type 2 diabetes do work."

Pursuing healthy habits such as exercising regularly, staying lean and not smoking are recommended ways to lower the risk of developing diabetes.

While recognizing the need for further research in people, Patti says the study shows the importance of minimizing the risk for developing diabetes as soon after birth as possible.

"How we nourish the babies after birth contributes to the ultimate risk for diabetes," she says.

The study comes at a time when the number of extremely small babies is on the increase in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in early February that the number of babies born weighing less than 1 pound, 10.5 ounces increased by almost 500 from 2001 to 2002.

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