Key discovery for diabetes project

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A discovery that could lead to a breakthrough in the prevention of insulin-dependent diabetes was announced by British scientists yesterday.

Researchers have found a molecular "marker" which will help pinpoint in advance people likely to develop the disease.

A statement from the British Diabetic Association yesterday said: "By signposting the way forward for further scientific research it could eventually lead to a breakthrough in the prevention of diabetes among future generations."

The key to the discovery lies in the way antibodies in people with diabetes attack cells which would normally discharge insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels. This leaves the victim with a shortage of insulin, which has to be given in daily injections. The "marker", a protein called IA-2, identifies a component in the molecular structure of the cells which acts as a target for the antibodies.

Three years ago researchers in the United States found another target marker, an enzyme called GAD. But the discovery was of limited use because antibodies which react to GAD are also present in people unlikely to develop diabetes. The new marker is thought to pinpoint people at risk of having diabetes much more accurately.

The research, funded by the BDA, the Royal Society and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, was carried out by a team at the Department of Medicine at King's College, London.

Dr Michael Christie, who led the research, said: "There is increasing optimism amongst researchers that insulin-dependent diabetes is a preventable disease. Our discovery of an accurate marker ... will be important in the identification of people who are at risk for the disease."

Tests have begun in Europe and the US to check the accuracy of the marker in large populations.