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Improving the treatment of neonatal diabetes

Project summary

Neonatal diabetes is a rare condition that can be caused by a mutation in a gene called KCNJ11, and is treated with sulphonylurea tablets. Dr Bowman plans to investigate the safety and effectiveness of sulphonylureas in more detail than has been carried out to date, to improve the treatment that people living with this condition receive.

Background to research

Neonatal diabetes is a rare form of diabetes that is diagnosed in babies before the age of six months. Babies with the condition have dangerously high blood glucose levels, because the pancreas doesn’t release insulin.

Neonatal diabetes can be caused by a mutation (or change) in a gene called KCNJ11, which ‘switches off’ insulin release. The protein coded for by the KCNJ11 gene also exists in the brain, and the mutation can impact on neurological function (for example, delayed development, muscle weakness and attention problems).

This type of diabetes can be treated with drugs known as sulphonylureas, which ‘switch on’ insulin release. Sulphonylureas are used to treat type 2 diabetes but, in around half of people, they begin to fail after five years. This can cause serious side effects. We don't yet know if this could also happen in people with neonatal diabetes.

Some research suggests that sulphonylureas may also improve the neurological problems that are linked to neonatal diabetes. But a higher dose is needed to work in the brain, and the treatment may work better if the drugs are started as soon as possible. Again, this hasn’t yet been fully investigated.

Research aims

Dr Bowman plans to investigate how sulphonylureas work in the pancreas and the brain of people diagnosed with neonatal diabetes (caused by the KCNJ11 mutation). She will take blood samples, to understand how different types of food influence insulin and glucose levels in these individuals. She will interview people, to investigate whether using higher doses or starting earlier with sulphonylurea treatment has a positive impact on neurological function. Finally, she will establish whether long-term treatment with sulphonylureas is safe and effective.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes


This research could have a real impact on the treatment and care that people living with this rare form of neonatal diabetes currently receive. If successful, the results could help healthcare professionals to prescribe the most effective treatments and give the best dietary advice.

Getting the right diagnosis and treatment has already helped people like Jack, who has neonatal diabetes. Now, new findings from Dr Bowman's research has shown that managing blood glucose using sulphonylurea tablets is both safe and effective in the long-term for people with neonatal diabetes. Read the full news story.

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