How this new hormone discovery could change future diabetes treatment

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Hormone discovery could mean the end of insulin for diabetes.

Could there be a way to make new cells in the pancreas for diabetes treatment with a hormone? If so, it could mean the end of daily insulin injections for millions living with the disease.


A new and rare discovery might do just that. Harvard researchers have identified betatrophin that is manufactured in human plasma and the mouse liver as a potential new target for diabetes control. The hormone stimulated production of new beta cells that produce insulin in mouse studies.

Betatrophin treatment could replace insulin injections

Researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts discovered betatrophin that this manufactured in the liver and in fat cells of mice grew new beta cells in the pancreas in addition to expanding existing cells. Beta cells are the insulin producers in the pancreas.

The scientists say the discovery could conceivably mean no more insulin injections for people suffering from diabetes.

In mouse models, the researchers induced insulin resistance, then monitored gene activity to find the most active; honing in on betatrophin. When they administered the hormone in 8 week old mice the noted a 17-fold boost in the production of beta cells.

The hormone also exists in human plasma, Melton says. Pen Yi, a post-doctoral fellow who participated in the study said he observed beta cells replicating under a microscope that has never been seen before.

The study was led Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute who says betatrophin is “robust” and very specific to beta cells. Melton says it is rare to discover a new hormone.

The hormone is active during embryonic and neonatal development. As we get older, the production of new pancreatic cells declines.


Treating diabetes with the hormone

Melton believes betatrophin could provide a boost to pancreatic β cells with once a month or even yearly injections for diabetics and without the side effects of daily insulin injections.

More research is needed before the hormone would be used to treat diabetic humans, though the discovery is an excellent starting point. Melton says it may take about 2 years to produce enough betatrophin to test on humans.

The liver has been suggested by researchers as a better target for controlling type 2 diabetes in the past.

The Salk Institute has been exploring ways to turn glucose production on and off in the liver to help type 2 diabetics, in findings published April 8 in the journal Nature.

There has been much focus on finding ways to prevent diabetes complications that costs billions in healthcare dollars spent each year and affects 300 million people worldwide. Much of the money spent is from side effects of diabetes drugs and complications.

The betatrophin hormone discovery is considered a breakthrough for diabetes treatment, but more needs to be done to see how humans respond.

The hormone for possible diabetes treatment is already being pursued by the German biotech company, Evotec. It has also been licensed to Janssen Pharmaceuticals. Melton said the hormone may also be useful for type 1 diabetes when administered early. Betatrophin has the potential to alter the future of diabetes control within the next 2 to 4 years.

April 25, 2013

Updated 11/6/2014


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