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Friday, 18 August, 2000, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
'Thriving' babies in diabetes risk
The relative size of siblings was researched
Babies who grow bigger than average during the first few years of life may be shaping up to develop diabetes, say scientists.

However, the research involves a relatively limited number of children, so much more work is needed to make sure this is not simply a freak result.

But if it does prove true, it may prove one explanation why diabetes is more common in developed countries, where babies are more likely to be well nourished.

The study, reported in the Lancet medical journal, was carried out by doctors from the Sophia Children's Hospital in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

They looked at changes in body length, height and mass in just over 200 siblings, half of whom had gone on to develop type I diabetes.

Midwife weighing baby
Babies who grow bigger had more risk
These were compared with more than 2,000 other healthy Dutch children.

This is the kind of diabetes which generally strikes in childhood, and leaves the patient dependent on regular insulin injections.

In the research, the pre-diabetic children, although they had a normal length and body mass up to four weeks after birth, had a tendency to become overweight in the first year of life.

They were bigger than their siblings, and significantly bigger than the average baby in the general population.

Significantly bigger

In the second and third years of life, both the babies who would go on to be diabetic, and their siblings, were significantly bigger than average children from other families.

But the pre-diabetic children were being caught up by the siblings, suggesting that the activity in the first year of life may have some significance.

Dr Jan Bruining, who led the study, said: "Hopefully this research will encourage other countries that have longitudinal growth data available to reproduce these findings."

The precise way in which being a bigger child might influence the development of diabetes is unknown.

Type I diabetes is thought to be an "autoimmune" disease in which the body's own immune system - which is meant to fight foreign threats like bacteria - turns on the cells in a gland called the pancreas.

These are responsible for producing insulin, which is vital in regulating the amount of glucose, or sugar, in the bloodstream. Once these cells, called islet cells, are destroyed by the immune system, the body has no way of making insulin.

Early increased growth is associated with the body making more insulin, which is thought to increase the likelihood of an autoimmune response to pancreatic islet cells.

However, as many babies are big, and only a very few go on to develop type I diabetes, it is likely there is at least one other factor involved.

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