UK and US researchers said up to 75 per cent of cases of type 1 diabetes could be diagnosed by scouring the blood for biomarkers of the condition.
The average child is in their mid-teens by the time they are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, by which time many have developed dangerous symptoms.
In the UK, heel-prick tests are already used to check for nine rare but serious conditions, including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease.
They are currently analysing their test in clinical trials at hospitals in Washington.
About the research
For the latest study, researchers drew on data from the Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY) Study.
The TEDDY study followed 7,798 children at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes from birth over nine years.
The researchers analysed the children’s records and found that children who developed the condition had large amounts of islet autoantibodies, biomarkers that appear when the pancreas is damaged, in their body.
They said they were able to use this approach to ‘dramatically improve prediction of which children would develop Type 1 diabetes’.
The cause of type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is caused when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to regulate the body’s blood-glucose levels.
It’s different from type 2 diabetes, which is a progressive condition where the pancreas is either not producing enough insulin or the insulin you are producing is not working effectively. It has been linked to obesity and a poor lifestyle which includes lack of exercise and poor diet.
Type 1 diabetes is much less common than type 2, affecting approximately 10 percent of all diabetes patients worldwide.
As many as four in 10 children with type 1 diabetes suffer ketoacidosis, when acidic substances called ketones build up to dangerous levels in the blood.
Although there are preventive treatments, they are rarely used because it is difficult to determine which children are at highest risk until diabetes manifests itself – by which time it’s too late.
How the study will help diagnosis and treatment
Identifying which children are at highest risk will also benefit clinical trials on drugs that are showing promise in preventing the condition, the scientist say.
Dr Lauric Ferrat at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: ‘At the moment, 40 percent of children who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes have the severe complication of ketoacidosis.
‘For the very young this is life-threatening, resulting in long intensive hospitalisations and in some cases even paralysis or death.
‘Using our new combined approach to identify which babies will develop diabetes can prevent these tragedies, and ensure children are on the right treatment pathway earlier in life, meaning better health.’
Professor William Hagopian of the Pacific Northwest Research Institute, said: ‘We’re really excited by these findings.
‘They suggest that the routine heel prick testing of babies done at birth, could go a long way towards preventing early sickness as well as predicting which children will get type 1 diabetes years later.
‘We’re now putting this to the test in a trial in Washington State. We hope it will ultimately be used internationally to identify the condition as early as possible, and to power efforts to prevent the disease.’