Newly Discovered Hormone Could Yield New Treatment For Diabetes

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A breakthrough in helping the body to produce more insulin could make tedious injections of the hormone history.

In type 2 diabetes, the body gradually loses its ability to make enough insulin to keep up with the sugar coming in from the diet. Eventually, the overwhelmed system leaves these sugars, in the form of glucose, to build up in the blood, which can lead to obesity, damage the heart, and cause other metabolic problems.

And while insulin injections are an effective way to break down the glucose, keeping track of blood sugar levels with regular finger pricks and repeated insulin shots aren’t an ideal way to treat a chronic disease. But despite decades of research, scientists haven’t found a better way to address the problem.

MORE: Half of Diabetes Cases Are Undiagnosed

Now, 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, the hormone could potentially do away with 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. “No one doubts that’s not a good idea.”

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It’s an exciting breakthrough in diabetes research, which for many years was focused on finding ways to externally supplement the body’s waning insulin levels. That’s because experts believed that once the pancreatic islet cells, the body’s insulin-making factories, were compromised, they couldn’t be made to work again. What’s more, they also surmised that only a specialized set of beta cells were equipped to make insulin, and that once diabetes set in, too few of these cells remained to pump out the critical hormone.

Melton, however, whose work focuses on understanding how stem cells might enhance beta cell production, admits that he is “obsessed” with the insulin-making cells, and reported in 2007 that all beta cells appeared to have the ability to produce insulin. His pursuit of a better understanding of this population, and the forces that cause them to falter in diabetes, led his team to the discovery of betatrophin.

MORE: Stem Cell Research: The Quest Resumes

In animal studies, 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’s team was able to isolate the hormone responsible – betatrophin. Over the course of a few weeks, mice bred to develop diabetes but injected with betatrophin were 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.”

What’s more, it appears the cells are relatively long-lasting, which could indicate they are robust enough to bring glucose levels in diabetics under control.

In theory, if the same results occur in people, it’s possible that those on the verge of developing diabetes might never progress to develop the disease, since the high blood sugar levels that can cause damage to tissues and lead the body to become less responsive to insulin could be avoided. It’s also possible that diabetics could lower their dependence on insulin and might even be able to wean themselves off of the injection altogether if their beta cell production is robust enough to provide the insulin they need.

MORE: Type 2 Diabetes Is Tougher to Treat in Kids and Teens

“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,” he says.

More work will be needed to confirm what benefit betatrophin might have on diabetic patients before that might be possible, however. 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.”

Those concerns aren’t lost on Melton, who also recognizes that more research is needed to confirm that betatrophin may benefit patients. “I am aware of the fact that given our level of ignorance, everything seems simple and straightforward,” he says. “But I am prepared to have it become more complicated.”

10 comments
JamesinColorado
JamesinColorado

I really hate these type of articles. They seem so one sidedI've been diagnosed Type II diabetes for 15 years I was 38 then. Don't know why this happened or what triggered it but by all reports at the time Type II was caused from being obese and poor diet, none of which I suffered from. I am 5'9'' and weigh approx 185 and have been since I was in my twenties and have been quite fit ever since graduating. So why was my pancreas shutting down? that's the million dollar question. Unfortunately, in order for doctors to do their jobs they first need to cut through the bias that Type II diabetes only affects those that have a weight issue. My opinion is genetics plays a greater roll in this then doctors are willing to admit and since most diagnosed are overweight doctors and clinicians have made sure to villify those that have Type II and stigmatize the general public that to suffer from Type II diabetes is somehow the fault of those afflicted. Diabetes gets very little attention yet it is afflicting society in epidemic proportions, and I'd be willing to bet a good percentage are not the stereotype. Diabetes is an insidious disease whether it is Type I or Type II, we hope for something other then ridicule by society in general and stereotype from the doctor. Our health proffessionals are going to have to wake up to the facts pretty soon, yet it amazes me how little they really know about this disease. It's as if how to make insulin was discovered all else went by the wayside and now the Grim Reaper is coming for the babyboomer generations and they want answers now.

mkb
mkb

what does Diabetes means ?  Let us decipher Diabetes. 

Suppose a person has FBS of 200mg/100ml, the person has an excess load of 80mg/100ml in the blood.

This literally means there is a 800mg/1 litre of plasma

total circulating glucose is 800*3.5 (Plasma) = 2800mg of glucose.

thats incredibly low in absolute terms.

Only walking can reduce the amount of glucose circulating in the blood.

right walking spend the excess glucose in the body and also provides more muscles  in the body to store the excess glucose.

Learn right walking and stay Healthy.

disclaimer :Take appropriate medical advice from professionals.

for right walking right foot wear is essential

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FreddyBright1
FreddyBright1

this breakthrough is not only good for diabetics it is also good for the company. hopefully it is really working. As Vivek Sood, famous author of The 5-Star Business Networks said on his book and blog if you want to stay in the business you should change your obsolete business model or you can just simply keep up with the pace of innovation that way you wouldn't be left in the dumps. A move to fight diabetes is a good move. A lot of people would be happy about it.

Marc Bisson
Marc Bisson

This sounds promising and hopefully it will be beneficiall, even if only in a small way, to type 1 diabetics like myself.

Andy Pratt
Andy Pratt

Might be one less paranoia to look forward to. Here's hoping.

HoopsAustralia
HoopsAustralia

@JamesinColorado I really liked your response re Type !! Diabetes. Word for word I feel exactly the same and identified with what you wrote.