Breakthrough for Diabetes
People with type 2 diabetes gradually lose their ability to produce enough insulin to keep up with their sugar intake. Eventually, glucose builds up in their blood, which can lead to obesity, heart damage, and other metabolic problems. Insulin injections are an effective way to break down this glucose; however, keeping track of blood sugar levels by pricking one’s finger regularly and taking insulin shots isn’t an ideal way to treat this chronic disease.
A way to help the body to produce more insulin could make these repetitive injections history.
Researchers working with mice at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute report in the journal Cell that they have discovered a hormone, betatrophin, that can prompt the body to generate more insulin-producing beta cells and, if the work is confirmed, this hormone could potentially eliminate the need for regular insulin shots.
“We don’t understand the cause of type 2 diabetes, but everyone agrees that having more beta cells is better,” says Douglas Melton, senior author of the paper and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. In the study, mice that were treated with another compound that compromised their ability to respond to insulin suddenly revved up production of more beta cells to compensate, and Melton and his team were able to isolate the hormone responsible. That hormone turned out to be betatrophin. Over a few weeks, mice bred to develop diabetes but injected with betatrophin increased their beta cell population by 17 times. “I was impressed by the fact that the number of beta cells in the mice doubled in one week with one injection,” says Melton. “That’s a huge difference.”
If these same results were to occur in people, it could be possible that people who are on the verge of developing diabetes might never progress to develop the disease. It is also possible that diabetics could lower their dependence on insulin, if their beta cell production is robust enough to provide the insulin they need. “Even if it doesn’t address insulin resistance, what [betatrophin] will do is lower blood sugar, and anything that lowers blood sugar can make you healthier,” Melton elaborates.
Additional research will be needed to confirm what benefit betatrophin might have on diabetic patients. John Anderson, president of medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association, says, “It’s very promising and opens up new avenues of research, but we are a long way from replacing insulin, or a cure, or even knowing how this [hormone] will work in human tissue.”