Young children with insulin-dependent diabetes could soon be given tablets instead of injections to control their condition.
Children with this type of diabetes are usually given injections
A team of international scientists has discovered that a mutation in a single gene is a common cause of diabetes in newborn babies.
They have also found that a group of drugs, called sulphonylureas, can help these children to produce insulin.
These tablets are already used to treat elderly people with diabetes.
However, doctors have never considered prescribing them to children before.
A small number of babies are born with neonatal diabetes each year. The condition can be devastating.
Some babies suffer from muscle weakness and neurological problems, such as epilepsy.
They are given regular injections of insulin. However, these are not always effective and their development can lag.
The children usually need to take injections for the rest of their life.
But scientists now believe that they have found the cause of the condition.
They carried out DNA tests on 29 young children with this type of diabetes. They found that many had a mutation in the potassium channel gene.
They believe that this mutation causes these children to produce less insulin than they should, triggering their diabetes.
They have also shown that children with the condition can respond to sulphonylureas.
"We have shown that over one third of patients diagnosed with diabetes before the age of 6 months will have diabetes because of a change in the potassium channel gene," said Andrew Hattersley, professor of molecular medicine at Peninsula Medical School in south-west England.
"It is very exciting that finding the cause of the diabetes in these children has resulted in the real possibility of stopping insulin injections."
The UK charity Diabetes UK, which part-funded the study, welcomed the findings.
"This is very exciting news for the small number of children with this particular gene which has caused them to develop diabetes before the age of six months, and will mean an improvement to their lives," said Simon O'Neil, its head of information and education.
"However, the majority of patients diagnosed with Type l diabetes, particularly those diagnosed over the age of six months, will not have their condition as a result of this cause, and so this potential treatment will unfortunately be of no benefit to them.
"Further research is needed to find other possible genetic causes amongst those who have Type 1 diabetes."