Macrosomia is associated with considerable neonatal and maternal morbidity. Factors that predict macrosomia are poorly understood. The increased rate of macrosomia in the offspring of pregnant women with diabetes and in congenital hyperinsulinaemia is mediated by increased foetal insulin secretion. We assessed the in utero and neonatal role of two key regulators of pancreatic insulin secretion by studying birthweight and the incidence of neonatal hypoglycaemia in patients with heterozygous mutations in the maturity-onset diabetes of the young (MODY) genes HNF4A (encoding HNF-4α) and HNF1A/TCF1 (encoding HNF-1α), and the effect of pancreatic deletion of Hnf4a on foetal and neonatal insulin secretion in mice.
Methods and Findings
We examined birthweight and hypoglycaemia in 108 patients from families with diabetes due to HNF4A mutations, and 134 patients from families with HNF1A mutations. Birthweight was increased by a median of 790 g in HNF4A-mutation carriers compared to non-mutation family members (p < 0.001); 56% (30/54) of HNF4A-mutation carriers were macrosomic compared with 13% (7/54) of non-mutation family members (p < 0.001). Transient hypoglycaemia was reported in 8/54 infants with heterozygous HNF4A mutations, but was reported in none of 54 non-mutation carriers (p = 0.003). There was documented hyperinsulinaemia in three cases. Birthweight and prevalence of neonatal hypoglycaemia were not increased in HNF1A-mutation carriers. Mice with pancreatic β-cell deletion of Hnf4a had hyperinsulinaemia in utero and hyperinsulinaemic hypoglycaemia at birth.
HNF4A mutations are associated with a considerable increase in birthweight and macrosomia, and are a novel cause of neonatal hypoglycaemia. This study establishes a key role for HNF4A in determining foetal birthweight, and uncovers an unanticipated feature of the natural history of HNF4A-deficient diabetes, with hyperinsulinaemia at birth evolving to decreased insulin secretion and diabetes later in life.
HNF4A mutations were found to be associated with a considerable increase in birthweight and macrosomia, and were a cause of neonatal hypoglycaemia.
MODY, or maturity-onset diabetes of the young, is a particular subtype of diabetes; only a few percent of people with diabetes are thought to have this subtype. The condition comes about as a result of a mutation in one of six genes. Generally, people with MODY have high glucose (sugar) levels in the blood, and the typical symptoms of diabetes, such as increased thirst and urination, typically develop when the person is below the age of 25 y. Two of the genes that are known to cause MODY are mutant forms of HNF4A and HNF1A. The proteins that are encoded by these two genes control insulin levels produced by the pancreas; when these genes are mutated, not enough insulin is produced. Without enough insulin to control blood sugar, levels rise, leading to the symptoms of diabetes. However, MODY can be managed by many of the same interventions as other types of diabetes, such as diet, exercise, drug treatments, and insulin injections.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although the evidence shows that individuals who carry mutations in HNF4A and HNF1A do not produce enough insulin and therefore have higher glucose levels in their blood, there were some tantalizing suggestions from mouse experiments that this might not be the whole story. Specifically, the researchers suspected that during embryonic development, mutations in HNF4A or HNF1A might actually cause higher insulin levels. Too much insulin during development of a fetus is known to cause it to gain weight, resulting in a baby that is larger than the average size for its age. Larger babies are risky for both the baby and the mother. The researchers doing this study wanted to understand more precisely what the links were between the forms of MODY caused by HNF4A and HNF1A mutations, and birth-weight and blood-sugar levels.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
In this study, the researchers examined 15 families in which some family members had MODY caused by a mutation in HNF4A. They compared the birthweight for family members carrying the mutation (54 people) against the birthweight for those who did not (54 people). A similar comparison was done for 38 families in which some members had a different form of MODY, this time caused by a mutation in HNF1A. The results showed that the birthweight of family members who carried a mutation in HNF4A was, on average, 790 g higher than the birthweight of family members who didn't carry the mutation. Low blood-sugar levels at birth were also more common in people carrying the HNF4A mutation as compared to people who did not. However, the HNF1A mutation did not seem to be associated with greater birthweight or low blood-sugar levels at birth. Finally, in order to understand these findings further, the researchers created embryonic mice carrying mutations in the mouse equivalent of HNF4A. These embryos produced more insulin than normal mouse embryos and, after birth, were more likely to have low blood-sugar levels.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that there is a link between mutations in HNF4A, but not in HNF1A, and increased birthweight. The increase found in this study is quite substantial (a median weight of 4,660 g in the affected babies; a birthweight of more than 4,000 g is generally considered large). The results suggest that in human embryos with a mutated form of HNF4A, too much insulin is produced during development, causing faster growth and a higher chance of the baby being born with low blood-sugar levels. This is an unexpected finding, because later in life the HNF4A mutation causes lower insulin levels. Therefore, the biochemical pathways causing this type of MODY seem to be quite complicated, and further research will need to be done to fully understand them. Crucially, the research also suggests that pregnant women carrying HNF4A mutations should be closely followed to check their baby's growth and minimize the chance of complications. Doctors and families should also consider doing a genetic test for HNF4A if a baby has low blood-sugar levels and if there is a family history of diabetes; this would increase the chance of diagnosing MODY early.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed 0040118.
In a related Perspective in PLoS Medicine, Benjamin Glaser discusses causes of type 2 diabetes mellitus in the context of this study's findings
The US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has pages of information on different types of diabetes
Wikipedia has an entry on Maturity Onset Diabetes of the Young (MODY) (note that Wikipedia is an internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
Diabetes Research Department, Peninsula Medical School, Exeter, UK provides information for patients and doctors on genetic types of diabetes; the website is maintained by the research group carrying out this study
Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on diabetes and pregnancy