A joint UK/US study has found that living in sterile environments can stop the absorption of 'friendly' gut bacteria, which in turn can help prevent development of Type 1 diabetes.
The study, published in the journal 'Nature', used genetically modified mice that lacked the part of the immune system that responded to bacteria.
They found that 80 per cent of the mice raised in a completely germ-free environment, and therefore lacking 'friendly' gut bacteria, developed diabetes.
Incidence of diabetes fell
But when they gave mice a cocktail of the usual bacteria found in the gut, the incidence of diabetes fell dramatically.
Professor Susan Wong, from Bristol University, who worked with scientists from Washington University, The Jackson Laboratory, and UCLA, said: "Understanding the relationship between our gut 'flora' and our immune system is extremely important.
"The objective now is to identify which friendly bacteria are having this effect, and how they stop the development of Type 1 diabetes."
Prove hypothesis in humans
Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said:
"This research is very interesting. We have known for some time about the association between early infection and the development of Type 1 diabetes. The results presented here also suggest that some infections may help to protect against the development of Type 1 diabetes.
"As always with experiments involving animal models, the trick for the researchers will be to prove their hypothesis in humans. The difficulty will be dissecting what factors are the triggers and we are a long way from finding that out.
"We wouldn't advocate people giving large quantities of probiotic foods to children at risk of developing Type 1 diabetes on the basis of these research results."