Prediction of adult diseases in infancy

A new way of predicting which young children are most at risk of eventually contracting diabetes and heart disease in adult life is being developed by researchers at Cambridge University  - with help from Bristol’s Children of the 90s.

Doctors have known for some time that there is a connection between a baby’s size at birth and the chances of developing some illnesses many years later.     

Now they have shown that small babies who quickly catch up in size – and who are born with the insulin gene – may be at greatest risk of developing diabetes and heart problems. In future doctors would be able to advise the parents of toddlers about the risk and steps they should take now to avoid the illness.

The latest research, published in the medical journal Diabetes, involved over 1,000 children who are part of the Children of the 90s study (also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children) based at the University of Bristol.   

The researchers were most interested in the children who were of low birth weight to begin with but went on to catch up in size by the age of two; and this early growth pattern is typical of firstborn children.   Measurements showed that the early catch-up infants tended to become children who were taller, heavier and fatter by the age of eight years.

Dr Ken Ong said: “We previously identified the first gene variant – in the insulin gene – related to common differences in birth size and we have since done a number of further studies to confirm that this genetic finding is true “

This insulin gene variant now also appears to affect childhood growth rates. In future doctors might be able to screen all early catch-up infants for the insulin gene variant, so that children who are at greater risk of developing diabetes or heart disease could be advised on lifestyle changes to avoid falling ill. 

Dr Ong said: “We have found that a combination of very early growth measurements and genetic testing can predict which babies will grow into the heavier fatter children - and so will have increased risk of disease in later life.

“If we can predict this by the age of one – with a combination of growth charts and genetics tests - we could do something about it early,  rather than wait until they clearly have a weight problem as older children.”

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