Cows’ Milk Protein and Type-1 Diabetes

Nowadays quite a lot of publicity is being given to the suspicion that cows’ milk-based infant formula may be responsible for an increase in Type-1 diabetes among Australian children.

Type-1 diabetes is a major childhood health problem. According to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures quoted recently, 20.9 children in every 100,000 develop it and there has been a 50% increase over the past decade in the incidence of the condition – in particular among the under-fives.

Unlike Type-2 diabetes – the version that develops gradually in an adult for lifestyle reasons – Type 1 attacks quickly, at times within 48 hours. Symptoms include acute dehydration and sudden, considerable weight loss (see footnote), and there’s a strong risk of coma if diagnosis and treatment aren’t swift enough. It develops when the body can no longer produce insulin, the hormone needed for cells to convert glucose to energy and is attributable to heredity and environment.

‘At-risk’ pregnant women include those who have been diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes or with partners or children who have developed the disease.

A major trial is under way in Australia testing the theory that young people with a genetic susceptibility to the disease contract it in the first six months of life through exposure to environmental factors possibly including cows’ milk protein and milk-based infant formula. Because of large molecules in the milk protein. There is not enough evidence yet to tell people at risk to avoid milk products that contain the suspected protein, hence the current trials. Mothers included in the trial are encouraged to breastfeed but when babies need supplement formula they’ll be divided into groups receiving typical and amended cows’milk formulas and the results tracked to see if the markers of diabetes develop. Future modification of cows’ milk in formula that would eradicate Type 1 depends on the results.

New Zealand researchers are trying to determine whether a specific cows’ milk protein, A1 beta casein, is associated with the rise in Type-1 diabetes and apart from macromolecule (large milk molecules) investigations, Australian researchers are also checking a link with rotavirus, which causes severe gastroenteritis in children.

Footnote: Type-1 diabetes symptoms: extreme thirst, frequent urinating, drowsiness or lethergy, increased appetite, sudden weight loss, sugar in urine, fruity breath odour, vision changes, heavy or laboured breathing, stupor or unconsciousness.