Researchers have long suspected a link between certain viral infections and the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Now, with the release of new results from a study called The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY), there’s finally solid evidence to suggest that viruses play a role in who gets the disease.
As described in an article published in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers looked at viruses in stool samples from hundreds of children followed from birth as part of the TEDDY study. They found that a prolonged infection (longer than 30 days) with a common type of virus that can cause a fever or sore throat — called an enterovirus — was linked to developing beta cell autoimmunity, a precursor to type 1 diabetes. (Beta cells are insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.)
“This is important because enteroviruses are a very common type of virus,” explains lead author Kendra Vehik, PhD, in a press release from the University of South Florida. “A lot of children get them, but not everybody that gets the virus will get [diabetes].”
The researchers found that certain children who carry a genetic variant in a surface protein of pancreatic beta cells — proteins that enteroviruses use to attach to the cells — are at higher risk for developing autoimmunity if they experience a prolonged infection. This is the first time that a genetic risk for type 1 diabetes has been shown to be related to virus receptors, according to Vehik.
The researchers also discovered that infection with a different virus in early life — called adenovirus C, which can cause respiratory infections — was linked to a lower risk of beta cell autoimmunity. Further investigation may reveal whether this type of infection offers a protective effect against developing type 1 diabetes.
A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree in government from Harvard University. He writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.