The potential to quickly diagnose children with type 1 diabetes before the onset of serious illness could be achieved using a simple, non-invasive breath test, according to new research reported today in Journal of Breath Research and the Daily Mail.
A team of researchers from Oxford have linked a sweet-smelling chemical marker in the breath with a build-up of potentially harmful chemicals in the blood that accumulate when insulin levels are low. It is hoped these results could inspire the development of a diagnostic device to identify children with new diabetes before the onset of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
Karen Addington, Chief Executive of JDRF in the UK, said to the Mail: “Early diagnosis of type 1 diabetes is crucial if people are to avoid being hospitalised with diabetic ketoacidosis. This is life-threatening and extremely traumatic for the individual’s wider family.
“Any new knowledge from research that could help doctors to diagnose people more swiftly is to be very warmly welcomed. I hear far too many stories from people who were turned away by their doctors after their first visit.’
She added: ‘The best known symptoms of type one diabetes are the “four ts” - more visits to the toilet, increased thirst, increased tiredness, and getting thinner. But sweet-smelling breath, also known as pear drop breath, is another important clue. Some or all of these symptoms can be present.’
DKA occurs when a severe lack of insulin means the body cannot use glucose for energy and starts to break down fat instead. Organic compounds called ketones are the by-product of the breakdown of fat and, if left unchecked, can build up and cause the body to become acidic. Acetone, which is the simplest ketone, is one of the by-products produced in the development of DKA and is usually disposed of through the breath.
Professor Gus Hancock, one of the researchers behind the study, said: “Our results have shown that it is realistically possible to use measurements of breath acetone to estimate blood ketones.
“We are working on the development of a small hand held device that would allow the possibility of breath measurements for ketone levels. Currently testing for diabetes requires a blood test which can be traumatic for children.”
He added that the test could be used in children already diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, to establish if their condition was deteriorating by “providing a warning of the possible development of DKA.”
Being newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes can be a daunting time for anyone. For parents, adults and teenagers – JDRF has a range of useful resources to help.