Scientists have launched a trial diabetes screening programme in the UK to help identify the early stages of type 1 diabetes and potentially avoid dangerous complications later in life.
From Monday, 20,000 children between 3 and 13 years old will take part in the Early Surveillance for Autoimmune Diabetes (Elsa) programme, led by scientists at the University of Birmingham.
The diabetes screening trial will use blood tests to try and identify a child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes at the earliest possible stage, so that the condition can be managed as soon as possible.
Douglas Twenefour, head of care at Diabetes UK, said the surveillance programme is ‘pivotal in transforming how we manage type 1 diabetes in the UK and could pave the way for a future where we no longer wait until the condition is diagnosed to treat it’.
For nurses in general practice, Mr Twenefour says that they can ‘support people with diabetes by helping ensure they have the appropriate tools and information to help them manage their condition, signposting people to diabetes education programmes in their area, and helping them to access available technology to help them manage their condition.
‘They can also share knowledge about the benefits of taking part in clinical trials and support people in enrolling on to trials they are eligible for,’ he added.
Up to 400,000 people in the UK are thought to have type 1 diabetes. Currently, Diabetes UK estimates that diabetes costs the NHS £1m an hour and makes up over 10% of the NHS’s total budget. Of that, 80% of NHS spending on diabetes is used to treat complications caused by the condition.
Without diabetes screening, more than a quarter of children in the UK are currently not diagnosed with type 1 diabetes until they are in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) – a serious problem that requires urgent hospital treatment.
Mr Twenefour said one of the issues is that we still don’t fully understand the factors that lead to the development of type 1 diabetes. Cases of type 1 diabetes are rising in the UK and were significantly higher in 2020-21 than in previous years, with 789 more new diagnoses than the average number between 2013/14 and 2019/20 according to Diabetes UK.
However, with this new programme, ‘the era of being able to strike early to delay type 1 diabetes is within reach, but we need to be able to identify those who could benefit’, according to Mr Twenefour.
Parth Narendran, professor of diabetes medicine, said: ‘As general population screening programmes for type 1 diabetes emerge around the world, we need to explore how best to screen children here in the UK.’
Professor Narendran said: ‘Screening children can reduce their risk of DKA at diagnosis around five-fold, and can help them and their families settle into the type 1 diagnosis better. We know the value of identifying people at risk of type 1 diabetes and we have the tools to do so – now we need to understand how best to implement them in the UK.’
Any children who are found to be at high risk of type-1 diabetes through the trial will be invited to take part in research of new treatments that might provide an alternative to insulin.
These new drugs include teplizumab which has been found to delay a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes for up to three years and is currently being reviewed for UK use.