Paediatric researchers in the US have found that a gene known to cause type 2 diabetes in adults also raises the likelihood of obesity during childhood.

The discovery, which sheds new light on the genetic origins of diabetes, has been hailed as a new breakthrough in developing drugs to counteract the growing frequency of diabetes in children and adolescents.

Research from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that the gene HHEX-IDE does not affect birth weight, but makes it more likely that a child will become obese during childhood.

The gene, however, does not appear to predispose to obesity in adults, although by contributing to childhood obesity, it may set the stage for type 2 diabetes in adulthood.

Associate director of the Centre for Applied Genomics of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and study leader Struan Grant said that it has been a bit of a mystery to scientists how or even if these adult diabetes genes function during childhood.

“This finding suggests that there may be genetic activity during childhood that lays the foundation for the later development of type 2 diabetes,” Grant said.

Type 2 diabetes occurs either when the pancreas produces too little insulin, or when the body cannot efficiently use the insulin that it is produced because cells have become resistant.

The study investigated 20 gene variants, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), previously reported to be associated with type 2 diabetes. The research drawn from nearly 7,200 Caucasian children, aged two to 18 years, is part of an ongoing genome-wide association study of childhood obesity at the Children’s Hospital.