By: Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Type I diabetes typically strikes in childhood and requires careful monitoring with finger sticks and insulin injections.

Local researchers are hoping to be able to prevent the condition with diet.

Can feeding a baby a special formula cut the risk of Type I diabetes?

“My initial reaction was disbelief,” says Children’s Hospital endocrinologist Dr. Dorothy Becker.

The idea came from studies in mice. They were less likely to have the condition if given a special type of formula.

“The suggestion came that it’s got nothing to do with the fact that’s it’s milk, but it’s probably an intact foreign protein that’s different from mother’s milk that may be important in susceptible babies,” Dr. Becker explains. “It was decided to do a pilot study in Finland which has the highest incidence of Type I diabetes in the world.”

A “New England Journal of Medicine” study looked at 230 infants — half were fed regular and half were fed a special formula. In the specially-prepared version, the proteins in standard cow milk formula were pulverized into teeny tiny particles – too small to activate the immune system. With Type I diabetes, the condition is related to an autoimmune attack against the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.

The study was too small to know if this actually reduced the risk of developing diabetes, but the babies fed regular cow milk were twice as likely to develop diabetes-related antibodies anywhere from age three months to 10 years.

A much larger ongoing study of more than 2,000 babies across 15 countries is expected to give more conclusive results. Children’s Hospital is part of that study.

“It is the first trial ever to start in the newborn period,” says Dr. Becker. “Now our biggest challenge is keeping contact with everybody in the study.”

Sixty-eight local families are participating. The children will be followed to age 10. The results are expected in 2017.

“That’s always frustrating, yes,” Dr. Becker concedes, who has been involved with studies on the subject for nearly two decades already. “I will be older when we get the answer, but I’m going to hang in there.”

Studies have focused on people with a susceptible genetic make up, but 90 percent of people with Type I diabetes do not have a family history. For that reason, Dr. Becker expects that if the larger study mirrors the pilot study, the findings could apply to the general population.

But the expense of specially-treating formula proteins may be a hard sell to manufacturers.