Background: The cows' milk hypothesis for the cause of insulin-dependent diabetes (IDDM) is based on the concept that early consumption of cows' milk may expose the immune system to a foreign protein possessing immunological cross-reactivity with an antigen present on pancreatic beta-cells.
Methods: We measured in-vitro peripheral lymphocyte response to beta casein, a protein in cows' milk, in 47 patients with recent-onset IDDM, in 36 healthy people and, to test disease specificity, in 10 patients with autoimmune thyroid disease. Other antigens tested for were bovine serum albumin, purified protein derivative, human serum albumin, and phytohaemagglutinin.
Results: Specific proliferation of T lymphocytes with bovine beta casein was seen in patients with IDDM (mean [SD] age 18.7 ) with a significant difference in mean stimulation index (SI) versus healthy people (p < 0.00001) or patients with autoimmune thyroid disease (p < 0.002). 24 of 47 (51.1%) patients with IDDM versus 0/10 patients with thyroid disease and 1/36 (2.7%) healthy people had a positive response to beta casein defined as a SI above the mean value +2 SD of healthy people (p < 0.00001). No significant differences were observed between the groups of subjects with respect to other antigens tested.
Interpretation: The association between IDDM and early consumption of cows' milk may be explained by the generation of a specific immune response to beta casein. Exposure to cows' milk triggers a cellular and humoral anti-beta casein immune response which may cross-react with a beta-cell antigen. It is of interest that sequence homologies exist between beta casein and several beta-cell molecules.