Exposure to Toxic Metals in Pregnancy May Increase Risk of Type 1 Diabetes – Diabetes Daily

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It is well-established that type 1 diabetes typically develops as a result of at least one genetic predisposition, and often an environmental trigger. The specific environmental factors that are involved are still in the process of investigation.

Interestingly, some heavy metals have been implicated in the disruption of beta-cell function and the development of type 1 diabetes. This information prompted a research study to evaluate the relevance of exposure to toxic metals during pregnancy to the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. The study results were recently published in the journal Pediatric Dimensions.

Study Design

Researchers collected umbilical cord blood samples from newborns born in Sweden between the years 1997 and 1999 and followed the cohort to document the incidence of type 1 diabetes. They randomly selected twenty samples from patients who developed type 1 diabetes and compared the presence of toxic metals to control samples from those who did not develop type 1 diabetes. Specifically, the samples were tested for the presence of the following metals:

  • Arsenic
  • Aluminum
  • Cadmium
  • Lithium
  • Mercury
  • Lead

Study Outcomes

The study demonstrated that patients who developed diabetes were more likely to have been exposed to toxic metals in utero, as shown by the presence of heavy metals in the umbilical cord blood samples. The specific breakdown is summarized in the figure below.

Children who later developed type 1 diabetes (n=20) more often have one or more toxic metals detectable in their cord blood than what is found in cord blood of control samples, born very close in time, who remain non-diabetic. (Ludvigsson et. al., 2019)

Conclusions

The study authors reported the following conclusions from this prospective study:

Exposure to toxic metals during pregnancy might be one among several contributing environmental factors to the disease process if confirmed in other birth cohort trials. Children who later developed type 1 diabetes had significantly more often increased concentrations of aluminium in cord blood than the non-diabetic controls. There was no significant difference between the groups for any other single metal, but both mercury and arsenic were more common (n.s) [in those who developed type 1 diabetes] (Figure 1). Those who developed type 1 diabetes later had significantly more often increased concentrations of the combination of aluminium and arsenic… These findings suggest that exposure to toxic metals during pregnancy might be one among several contributing environmental factors to the disease process if confirmed in other studies.

The authors noted that a limitation of the study was the relatively low sample size and that these results require further validation in larger cohorts.

In summary, this work suggests that there may be a relationship between in utero exposure to certain heavy metals and the development of type 1 diabetes, but these early findings require further investigation.

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