The clinical presentation of type 1 diabetes is preceded by an asymptomatic latent period characterized by the presence of diabetes-associated autoantibodies in the peripheral circulation, reflecting beta-cell damage. This prediabetic period may last for months and years. Several studies observing genetically susceptible subjects from birth have shown that insulin autoantibodies (IAA) are the first or among the first autoantibodies to appear in young children, implying that insulin may be the primary autoantigen in most cases of childhood type 1 diabetes. About 12-16% of siblings of children with type 1 diabetes have been observed to test positive for at least one diabetes-associated autoantibody, whereas the risk of diabetes among siblings has been estimated to be 6-8%. In parallel, close to 4% of Finnish schoolchildren tested positive for at least one diabetes-associated autoantibody; the lifetime risk of type 1 diabetes in the Finnish population has been estimated to be close to 1%. These observations suggest that only 25-50% of those with signs of beta-cell autoimmunity eventually progress to clinical type 1 diabetes. Accordingly there is a considerable proportion of children in whom beta-cell autoimmunity remains subclinical or is aborted. Positivity for only one diabetes-associated autoantibody may actually represent innocent beta-cell autoimmunity, while positivity for two or more autoantibodies seems to mark a point of no return. The autoimmune response is very dynamic in the early phase of prediabetes, with spreading from one antigen to another and from one epitope to another within a given antigen. In addition both isotype spreading and switching can be observed in early prediabetes. This indicates that the early prediabetic process may be a suitable target for immunomodulation aimed at delaying or preventing progression to clinical diabetes.
Copyright 2002 S. Karger AG, Basel