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Babies Are The Newest Volunteers To Advance Research Into Diabetes

What if the risk for health problems like obesity and diabetes could be controlled in babies? Or better yet…before they’re even born? That’s the premise behind a new study in San Antonio using the youngest of volunteers. 


Ruby Gonzalez is only four months old. Already, she’s part of important human health research.

"As a new mother, I want what’s best for Ruby. And I know how much this research can benefit babies in the future," said Ruby's mother, Brittany Crump. She is one of the first 40 mothers to volunteer for a study taking place at University Hospital.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Cynthia Blanco, MD, is a neonatologist with UT Health San Antonio and University Hospital.


It’s well known that diabetes runs in families. Now, UT Health neonatology professor Dr. Cynthia Blanco wants to know if genes that put people at risk for the chronic condition can be tweaked in infancy…or before. When volunteer mothers give birth, Blanco and her team harvest cord blood for important genetic information.

"Actually in this study, we’re looking at the entire genome of all of the babies and moms to try to understand if there’s a particular gene, or a group of genes, that are actually getting interactions with certain nutrients," Blanco explained

In other words, it might be possible to head off diabetes in the future by controlling vitamins and nutrients in utero and beyond. "We can only say, well, healthy diet. What does that mean? But if we say, hey, you probably need to just eat this one vitamin a little more or decrease this one thing, then that’s easier," Blanco stated.

The scientific approach is complicated, including sophisticated body analysis using body scans and a special device that measures the body composition of babies.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
The machine that measures body composition of babies is called the Pea Pod.


Baby Ruby lies on her back on a track that slides her into an enclosed tube. It looks like a miniature pod you might see in a science fiction movie. After two to three minutes, the machine calculates air displacement and is able to give researchers a good idea of Ruby’s body composition.

One question to be answered: does a baby’s body fat distribution drive their risk of disease later?

"There’s a lot of problems in Bexar County," Blanco said. She add that this work is critical, since diabetes rates are rising despite current interventions. "We’ve done a lot of things to stop that and things are not working."

A grant from the San Antonio Medical Foundation is funding this groundbreaking work. The study also includes help from Trinity University and the San Antonio Military Medical Center.

Dr. Blanco’s team expects early results this fall.  



Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.