Amelia Erickson is only 1, but she's already involved in the search for a cure for type 1 diabetes. She drinks a special formula that has added either a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid or a placebo as part of a national study to see if it prevents at-risk babies from developing the disease.

"We really believe that the key to curing type 1 diabetes is going to be preventing it," says Dr. Mary Murray, principal investigator at the University of Utah for the Nutritional Intervention to Prevent Type 1 Diabetes Pilot Trial (NIP). She is also medical director of Primary Children's Medical Center's diabetes program and an associate professor at the U.

The NIP pilot, taking place at nine centers nationwide as a subset of the international Diabetes TrialNet collaboration, is a double-blinded, randomized trial to see if Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) intervenes in the disease process for babies most likely to develop type 1 diabetes later. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid found in pumpkin seeds, cold-water fish, soybeans, walnuts, eggs and other foods.

The centers are enrolling pregnant women in their third trimester or their babies, up to 5 months of age. The babies must have a parent, sibling or half-sibling already diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Blood screening determines if the baby carries indicators of a likelihood that he or she will develop diabetes. The study goal is to understand the autoimmune disease, which starts silently and progresses to the point where symptoms can be seen, Murray said.

Over time, diabetes can wreak havoc on the heart, the kidneys, the eyes and more.

Previous research has shown that people at risk for type 1 diabetes have an inflammatory autoimmune process that can destroy the pancreas' ability to produce insulin. DHA is thought to suppress or inhibit that destructive process, Murray says.

The researchers will measure a major inflammatory cytokine and see if it can be reduced by the omega-3.

Type 1 diabetes often develops early, with the first peak around 5-7 years and another at about age 15. But Murray says a growing number of children are being diagnosed — the biggest increase is in kids under 5. People with type 1 must take insulin and monitor their glucose closely.

Women who are pregnant or nursing will take the oil-or placebo-filled capsules or add it to formula if they're bottle-feeding baby. Babies who qualify will be seen every three months until about 18 months, then every six months. The pilot is funded for two years but was built so it can be expanded to other centers and extended two years.

Amelia may be taking the fatty acid or a placebo. Her mom, Tiburon Erickson of Taylorsville, knows she may never benefit directly from the study. But Amelia's 8-year-old brother Ethan was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 5. Ethan and sisters Avery, 5, and Olivia, 2, are all enrolled in studies aimed at broadening medical knowledge of diabetes.

Studies that further knowledge, says Tiburon Erickson, all provide Ethan with the best opportunity to manage his disease, which his sisters may also develop at some point.

Research, adds Murray, has changed the course of the disease. "We have made huge, huge strides in our ability to manage type 1 diabetes. People are much healthier than they were in previous generations. But the only way to stop it is to intervene — identify who's at risk and what we can do to change that risk profile, then do it."

Funding for the NIP trial comes from multiple sources, including the National Institutes of Health, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the American Diabetes Association. For information about the study in Utah, contact Eric Garcia at 801-587-3972.

E-mail: [email protected]