Diabetes & Vitamin D Supplements - Benefits for Children/Infants

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Local Diabetes Researchers Seek to Unlock Mysteries of Vitamin D
The Seattle Times, 04-18-08

April 17 -- Finnish babies born in the 1960s and raised on mega-doses of vitamin D had dramatically lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes, a serious autoimmune disease that requires lifelong injections of insulin.

Was it a case of cause and effect?  Seattle researchers are trying to find out.

Despite suggestions from several studies in the past decade that vitamin D may offer strong protection against juvenile diabetes, none has shown conclusively that there's more than a chance association.  But researchers at the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute (PDRI) are working to unearth definitive proof of vitamin D's powers.

PDRI scientists are among a group of researchers scattered in four countries who are tracking children at high risk for type 1 diabetes for 15 years to identify the environmental triggers of the disease.

At the same time, Dr. Bill Hagopian (principal scientist at PDRI) joined Canadian researchers to conduct a randomized controlled trial to test directly whether vitamin D supplements might help with the disease.

Their quest got renewed impetus last month when British researchers published a collective analysis of five previous studies from around the world and calculated that taking vitamin D reduced the risk of developing type 1 diabetes by almost a third.  Children who started supplements early in infancy and took the highest doses -- 2,000 International Units (IU), or 10 times the current U.S. daily recommendation for infants -- reaped the greatest benefits.

"Vitamin D is one of the most promising" of the environmental factors, Hagopian said.  "This may be the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential benefits of vitamin D on autoimmune diseases."

Type 1
Type 1 diabetes springs from a mysterious interaction between genetics and environment.  As many as 90 percent of people with type 1 diabetes are born with a diabetes-enabling version of a set of genes called human leukocyte antigens.  Yet, only about one out of 30 people with this genetic susceptibility ever develop type 1 diabetes.  In addition, the vast majority of children who get it do not have parents or siblings with the disease.

Researchers suspect that's because half of the risk for type 1 diabetes lies in the environment.  They have a lengthy list of suspected culprits:  gluten in wheat, oats or barley;  cow's milk; allergies; gut bacteria; stress;  antioxidant deficiency and the polio-related Coxsackie virus all have been tied to heightened odds of type 1 diabetes.

Epidemiologic studies, however, have produced conflicting findings;  no single environmental trigger has yet been implicated with absolute certainty.

About 15,000 U.S. children and adolescents are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes each year.  Unlike the more common type 2 diabetes, obesity and lack of exercise play no role in type 1 diabetes.  Rather, the person's immune system turns against the body as it destroys cells that produce insulin (a hormone needed to help convert food into energy).

4,000 IU Per Day
"Vitamin D is thought to help suppress the immune response responsible for the attack on the insulin-making cells.  But, no one understands exactly how that happens which leads to lingering scientific skepticism about vitamin D's promise," states Christiane Hampe (diabetes researcher at the University of Washington).

What researchers do know is that vitamin D absorption which comes from the sun's rays and supplements, has fallen in recent decades.  For instance, Finlands northern region gets just two hours of sun a day in December and has one of the world's highest reported rates of type 1 diabetes.  Since 1964, the daily recommended dose for Finnish infants has been lowered three times.  It has gone from at least 4,000 IU to one-tenth of that today which reflects medicine's shift toward the minimum doses necessary.

A 2001 review of 31 years of medical records for more than 10,000 Finnish babies born during 1966 found that infants who took less than the then, maximum suggested dose of 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily, later developed type 1 diabetes five times more often than those who took the full dose.

7,800 Infants
Hagopian and his international colleagues are testing that tie more rigorously.  Scientists in Seattle, Colorado, Florida, Germany, Sweden and Finland plan to track 7,800 infants into their teen years to build the most statistically powerful database yet of their diet and environmental exposures.  Every three months, researchers take blood and stool samples to measure actual levels of vitamin D, toxins, and other agents.

Enrollment in the study is nearly two-thirds complete.  Researchers hope to sign up 500 additional high-risk babies in Seattle -- particularly those with immediate family members with type 1 diabetes.

But Hagopian is optimistic enough to simultaneously prepare putting the vitamin D hypothesis to the ultimate test.  He is looking forward to isolating vitamin D's effect by randomly splitting a group and giving supplements to only half of the participants.  A steering committee within the U.S. National Institutes of Health may vote as early as this week on whether to fund the trial.

Dr. Shayne Taback, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba is leading the randomized controlled trial.  He hopes to prove that vitamin D is instrumental in preventing type 1 diabetes with the question of dosage and amount playing a major role.  Taback suspects the current recommended levels are too low to ward off the disease.  "If that's the case, vitamin D supplementation would indeed make a significant dent in new cases of type 1 diabetes in many parts of the world."

Kyung Song:  206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com

Information:  Pacific Northwest Diabetes

Research Institute:  www.pnri.org (soon to be www.pndri.org) or 206-726-1200


To see more of The Seattle Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, Seattle Times.  Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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