di Davide Marchetta
Rome, October 28 - Italian scientists have discovered a possible cause of juvenile diabetes (type 1), a way to screen newborns at risk, and a promising experimental therapy to try to prevent its onset, researchers announced on Monday. Type 1 diabetes may be caused by the absence of a family of molecules called the carnitines, which eliminate autoreactive immune system cells that provoke the disease, according to findings published in Nutrition and Diabetes, a magazine edited by Nature. Innovative blood-screening for newborns, conducted by Dr. Giancarlo La Marca at the Meyer Pediatric Hospital in Florence, has enabled a team of researchers there with the collaboration of Bambino Gesu' (Baby Jesus) hospital in Rome to probe the correlation between carnitine count and the onset of the disease. Research was coordinated by professor Gian Franco Bottazzo, ex-scientific director at Bambino Gesu', who in 1974 was the first researcher to recognize that type 1 diabetes was an autoimmune disorder. Immune system cells turn on the host to destroy the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, a hormone that is central to regulating the metabolism of fat and carbohydrate in the body. Because ''Giancarlo La Marca carried out in his laboratory a particular, expanded neonatal screening - unique in Italy - for diagnosing metabolic disorders, we have discovered that newborns with low concentrations of carnitines in the blood develop the disease later,'' Bottazzo told ANSA in an interview. ''Low levels of carnitines at birth could predispose (newborns) to type 1 diabetes as the carnitines serve to eliminate autoreactive immune cells normally present in the thymus (gland) of newborns. If the death of (the autoreactive immune cells) does not happen extremely early on, these cells enter into the circulatory system, nestle in the lymph nodes and, if activated, cause diabetes,'' said Bottazzo. The researchers hope to now conduct a clinical experiment in which newborns with low carnitine counts receive supplement of the helpful molecules to suckle during the first days of life to see if the onset of the disease can be prevented. ''It is the first time a market for diabetes I has been found at birth,'' Bottazzo concluded. Bottazzo added that a hereditary component has been found in type 1 diabetes. DNA markers HLADR3 and HLADR4 in children have been correlated with elevated risk for the disease. ''More than 90% of type I diabetics carry these genes,'' explained Bottazzo.