Children diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the first six months of life treated with sulfonylurea.
Children who are dependent on insulin injections could now be treated with tablets after researchers at Plymouth's Peninsula Medical School discovered a new, genetic cause of diabetes. The researchers published a paper showing that mutations in the gene responsible for the insulin producing beta-cells was a common cause of diabetes in children diagnosed in the first six months of life.
Some cases of neonatal diabetes result from activating mutations in the ATP-sensitive potassium channel (K-ATP), an international research team reports. Their studies suggest that sulfonylurea treatment may restore insulin secretion in such patients.
Although the diabetes has a genetic cause in 80 per cent of the children, they will still be the first person in their families with diabetes.
Before this discovery children with this type of diabetes would have to take insulin injections for the rest of their life.
But the Peninsula Medical School team, working with scientists throughout the world, have shown that patients with the genetic type of diabetes can respond to sulfonylurea tablets.
They are normally used by elderly patients with diabetes and had never been considered in children who were not secreting any insulin.
The research was led by Professor Andrew Hattersley and funded by the Wellcome Trust and Diabetes UK. The findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Prof Hattersley said: "We have shown that more than one third of patients diagnosed with diabetes before the age of six months will have diabetes because of a change in the potassium channel gene.
"It is very exciting that finding the cause of the diabetes in these children has resulted in the real possibility of stopping insulin injections."
Even more remarkably, the cure had already been discovered by accident in Brazil four decades ago, when a baby was given the drug in desperation, because no insulin was available. He is still alive 46 years later, and his example shows that the drug can free children born with the rare form of diabetes from a lifetime of injections, as well as helping to advance understanding of the more common forms of the disease.