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Prenatal Exposure to Viruses May Cause Type 1 Diabetes and Other Autoimmune Diseases

Exposure to Viruses During PregnancyThe cause of type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases continues to elude scientists. However, a new study published in the journal Diabetic Medicine suggests that type 1 diabetes may begin in utero as a result of prenatal exposure to viruses.

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease characterized by high levels of glucose in the blood. Symptoms include frequent urination, increased thirst, dry mouth, increased hunger, fatigue, and weight loss. Untreated type 1 diabetes can cause cardiovascular disease, diabetic neuropathy, and diabetic retinopathy. The disorder is also associated with other autoimmune diseases.

While investigating type 1 diabetes, Professor Zvi Laron — Professor Emeritus of Pediatric Endocrinology at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Director of the Endocrinology and Diabetes Research Unit at Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel, and Head of the WHO Collaborating Center for the Study of Diabetes in Youth — and an international team of researchers from Israel, the University of Washington, and Lund University, Sweden discovered that birth season affects rates of the disorder among children.

States Prof. Laron:

“We knew that type 1 diabetes was associated with other autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto Thyroiditis, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis, so we investigated the seasonality of birth months for these respective diseases in Israel and other countries. We found that the seasonality of the birth of children who went on to develop these diseases did indeed differ from that of the general public.”

The researchers hypothesize that exposure to and transmission of viruses during pregnancy can spark the development of type 1 diabetes in genetically susceptible children before birth.

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Adds Prof. Laron:

“In further studies, we found evidence that viral infections of the mother during pregnancy induced damage to the pancreas of the mother and/or the fetus, evidenced by specific antibodies including those affecting the pancreatic cells producing insulin.”

For the present study, the researchers used blood tests to examine for islet cell autoantibodies in 107 healthy pregnant women. Islet cell autoantibodies are evidence of diabetes that appear prior to other symptoms. The researchers also tested for anti-rotavirus and anti-CoxB3 antibodies.

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The researchers discovered striking differences in the blood samples depending on the season of the year. During winter viral epidemics, one in ten pregnant women without any family history of type 1 diabetes tested positive for antibodies that cause pancreatic damage.

The findings of the present study may help prevent type 1 diabetes in the future by preventing viral infections during pregnancy. Concludes Prof. Laron:

“If our hypothesis can be verified, then preventive vaccine before conception would be useful in stopping the increasing incidence of type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. There is no cure for this diabetes, so true intervention would be important not only medically but also psychologically and financially, as the costs of the lifelong treatment of this chronic disease and other autoimmune diseases are great.”

Many viral infections including rotavirus are preventable through the use of vaccines, indicating the continued importance of vaccination during adulthood.

Another recent study concluded that rotavirus infections can accelerate the development of type 1 diabetes.

References

Prenatal exposure to viruses may cause type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases in children: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/283497.php
Type 1 childhood diabetes caused by prenatal exposure to viruses, study suggests: http://www.diabetes.co.uk/news/2014/oct/type-1-childhood-diabetes-caused-by-prenatal-exposure-to-viruses,-study-suggests-98140634.html
Viral infection may trigger childhood diabetes in utero: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-10/afot-vim100314.php

Image Credits

Exposure to Viruses During Pregnancy: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/104964

Written by Heather Johnson

Heather is a writer, librarian, linguist, wife, and mother who loves her husband, children, dogs, and cats. She has a bachelor's degree in English with a minor in creative writing and master's degrees in library and information science and English studies with a concentration in linguistics.

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