In a new study from the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, Scotland, researchers suggest that Type I diabetes, also known as childhood or juvenile diabetes, is linked to a common enterovirus found in the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreases. This class of viruses, which often causes colds, fever, and upper respiratory problems, has long been suspected to play a role in the disease but little evidence to support the connection has existed.

The researchers found that in 60% of the samples they analyzed, a common enterovirus was indeed present.

In the current study, the team led by Alan Foulis looked at pancreas cells from 72 young diabetes patients who had fallen victim to the disease. Juvenile onset diabetes occurs due to a somewhat mysterious immune reaction in which the body essentially attacks the beta cells in the pancreas. Beta cells are those which normally produce insulin, the key hormone that helps manage the body's blood sugar level.

The researchers found that in 60% of the samples they analyzed, a common enterovirus was indeed present. In the pancreases of children without diabetes, evidence of the virus was rarely seen at all.

When the pancreases of adults with Type II diabetes were studied, 40% of these organs showed evidence of the enterovirus. This form of diabetes typically develops later in life, and is more common in overweight adults.

It has long been acknowledged that there is a significant genetic component to the disease; given the current results, the researchers suggest that in those individuals who are genetically predisposed to diabetes, acquiring the enterovirus in childhood may be the tipping point.

Foulis says that the "story that is emerging is there is a virus infection that precedes the onset of autoimmunity. There is a thought that we are looking at the culprit." The team points out that given the increasing understanding of how diabetes may develop and function, a vaccine given to ward off the enterovirus infection in childhood may be a possibility in the future. However, there is still more research to be done — particularly to determine which of the many enteroviruses out there may be the most likely to trigger the disease.

This research was published in the March 6, 2009 issue of Diabetologia.