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Timothy McDonald, PhD FRCPath
NIHR Senior Clinical Lecturer, University of Exeter Medical School

£800,000 to develop life-saving heel-prick test for babies with diabetes

Exeter’s world-leading diabetes experts have been awarded more than £800,000 to develop a test that can identify babies with neonatal diabetes in the first few days of their lives.

The research is a collaboration between the University of Exeter Medical School and the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. The funding, from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) will help prevent babies with neonatal diabetes from developing life-threatening complications and related conditions, by getting them on the right treatment pathway as early as possible.

NIHR has awarded the team, led by Dr Tim McDonald, £830,000 over five years, to build on their previous work and develop a test which will ultimately save lives. Last year, Dr McDonald won the Diabetes UK Lily Clinical Sciences for pilot work on the project.

Neonatal Diabetes is a rare condition in which babies are born with a genetic defect that means their blood sugar (glucose) rises from birth and they get increasingly severe diabetes. It is a sub type of diabetes, distinct from both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

At present, babies with neonatal diabetes are not recognised as being ill until several weeks to months after birth when their glucose reaches a life threatening level and they start to vomit and lose consciousness.

Dr Tim McDonald, NIHR Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Neonatal diabetes is diagnosed within the first six months of life – but this is already too late for many babies. Many infants die, and those that do not may be left with life changing brain damage and needing to be in hospital or institutional care for life.

The team will develop a test that can help identify these babies before they get ill. All babies at days 5-7 off life have a blood spot taken from a prick of their heel to test for a number of rare diseases. The new test will measure blood glucose on this same blood spot to identify those with high blood glucose so the diabetes can be diagnosed and treated before life threatening conditions develop.

Dr McDonald said: “Neonatal Diabetes can cause real heartache for families, particularly when they know that earlier diagnosis could have avoided some of the most severe complications. Our test will mean that babies are diagnosed as early as possible, when they are just days old. It will get them the right treatment meaning the best possible health outcomes.”

Date: 15 June 2017