Doctors in Singapore are not leaving it to chance in the war against diabetes, with a bid to prevent the illness even before a baby is conceived.
Researchers here are conducting a study to see if a special drink taken by women before they conceive and throughout their pregnancy could help them maintain healthy sugar levels.
This could potentially prevent pregnant women from developing gestational diabetes, and lower the risk of their babies becoming obese or diabetic later in life.
The study, which is also being done in New Zealand and Britain, was started at the National University Hospital (NUH) in July last year. Called Nipper - short for Nutritional Intervention Preconception And During Pregnancy To Maintain Healthy Glucose Levels And Offspring Health - the study has recruited more than 400 out of its target of 600 participants so far.
The Singapore team is comprised of researchers from the National University Health System, National University of Singapore, and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
Diabetes is a growing global issue, said Associate Professor Chan Shiao-Yng, a consultant at NUH's Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and co-investigator of the local study.
Particularly worrying is that the disease affects many women of childbearing age, she said.
About 2.8 per cent of women in their 30s in Singapore are already diabetic, and 13.9 per cent are prediabetic, which puts them at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Women who are prediabetic are also at risk of developing gestational diabetes, which affects one in five pregnancies here - among the highest in the world.
Babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes are at a higher risk of developing childhood obesity.
They are also four to five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and have double the chances of being obese as an adult, according to previous studies.
"If they are female, they can pass this on to the next generation when they get pregnant. We want to break this cycle of disease," said Prof Chan.
According to another local study, around 10 per cent of women who suffer from gestational diabetes develop type 2 diabetes within five years, compared with 1 per cent of women without the condition.
The encouraging thing is that researchers from the three participating countries believe they might have developed a prized formula.
The special drink contains myo-inositol, a compound found in vegetables and beans, on top of what is routinely recommended for pregnancy. Myo-inositol is linked to improvements in sugar metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
Sugar metabolism is the process of breaking down sugar and glucose into energy. This is something that diabetic people have problems with, either because they do not produce enough insulin to lower blood glucose levels, or cannot use insulin effectively.
In the local study, half of the participants will be given the special drink, which has to be taken twice a day; the other half will be given a formula with ingredients such as vitamins and minerals that pregnant women are encouraged to take.
They will be chosen at random.
Associate Professor Chong Yap Seng, senior consultant at NUH's Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and principal investigator of the local study, noted that some people may have worries about the myo-inositol in the special drink, as it is something that they are unfamiliar with.
But he said this compound will not have adverse effects on healthy pregnant women.
It is not synthetic but found naturally in foods, he added.
During the study, mothers will be screened for diabetes during pregnancy. Their babies' growth will be monitored throughout the pregnancy and for a year after birth, with their nutrition also tracked.
The team expects the results of the study to be ready in 2020.
There are currently two other ongoing studies that look at the impact of a mother's health on her baby.
Madam Wong Xue Yun, 29, said she was motivated to join the Singapore Nipper study after suffering from gestational diabetes during her first pregnancy.
"I hope that by participating in this study, I will help future mothers avoid gestational diabetes and lower the risk of their children being obese or diabetic," said the case management officer.