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Tuesday, 27 March, 2001, 00:04 GMT 01:04 UK
Supplement 'could prevent diabetes'
pills pour
A food supplement could even prevent diabetes
A protein supplement given to mothers-to-be might stop children developing diabetes decades later, believe scientists.

Animal research in Canada, to be presented at a UK conference on Tuesday, suggests that adding the supplement taurine could help stave off the late-onset form of the disease.

Professor David Hill, who leads the research team, told the BBC that the supplement might one day become as important as folic acid for pregnant women.

It seems we have a real window of opportunity to reverse the programming which is taking place during pregnancy

Professor David Hill, scientific director, Lawson Health Research Institute
Diabetes happens when the body, for whatever reason, cannot produce enough of the hormone insulin to properly regulate blood sugar levels.

Insulin is produced in cells in the pancreas called islet cells, but scientists have found that the pancreas also contains stem cells - master cells which have the ability to turn into replacement islet cells and help the gland working properly through life.

Pregnant rats given a low-protein diet have offspring who have far fewer pancreatic stem-cells - on average, only half as many.

This suggests that this deficiency in pregnancy could contribute to type II diabetes later in life.

However, rat mothers supplemented with taurine through pregnancy and until weaning had normal levels of these stem cells, and maintained them throughout life.

More than diabetes

Professor Hill is keen to start human trials, believing that nutrition during pregnancy could be at the root of many more conditions which develop during life.

He said: "It seems we have a real window of opportunity to reverse the programming which is taking place during pregnancy.

"If we can change these fundamental building blocks at this stage, it could make a huge difference."

In addition, the team from the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario, will tell the British Endocrine Society meeting in Belfast about a leap towards transplants of the insulin-producing cells.

And its technique would use stem-cells harvested from the diabetic patient, removing both the ethical problems associated with using foetal islet cells, and the dangers of rejection.

The institute's researchers have found a way to find the cells within pancreatic tissue, and believe it will not be long before they can develop and grow sufficient numbers to transplant back in.

Professor Hill said: "The research demonstrates the potential of harvesting stem cells from donor tissues, rather from the early embryo with its associated ethical dilemmas.

"Understanding how to isolate stem cells and induce their differentiation into insulin producing islets the fast-track to making islet transplantation widely available to diabetics."

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