A new study has revealed that a common family of viruses (enteroviruses) in the pancreas may play an important role in triggering the development of diabetes, particularly in kids.
The study has been conducted by researchers from the Peninsula Medical School in the South West of England, the University of Brighton and the Department of Pathology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
Type 1 diabetes usually starts in young people and results from the destruction of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.
It has long been speculated that viruses might play a role in causing type 1 diabetes by infecting the beta cells of the pancreas.
For the study, the researchers looked at the collection of pancreases from 72 young people who died less than a year after the diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.
The study revealed that more than 60 per cent of the organs contained evidence of enteroviral infection of the beta cells.
By contrast, infected beta cells were hardly ever seen in tissue samples from 50 children without the condition.
The study has suggested that enteroviral infection of the beta cells in children with a genetic disposition to type 1 diabetes may initiate a process whereby the body's immune system identifies beta cells as 'foreign' and rejects them, as it would a transplanted organ.
A further extension of the study to adults with type 2 diabetes showed that a large proportion (40 per cent) of these patients also had enteroviral infection in their beta cells.
However, a link has not been totally established and this does not mean that lifestyle and obesity do not contribute towards the disease.
Overall, the findings of this new study suggest that vaccination in childhood to prevent enteroviral infections of beta cells might be an attractive means to reduce the incidence of both common forms of diabetes.
However, there are up to 100 different strains of enterovirus and more research will be needed to identify which particular enteroviruses are associated with the development of diabetes, and whether vaccines could be developed to prevent their spread.
The study is published in the leading European diabetes journal, Diabetologia.