Diabetes research: A new hormone to spur insulin production?

April 26, 2013 | by Wayne Lewis

In a potentially significant advance against diabetes, researchers have found a new hormone in the liver and in fat that seems to cause insulin-generating cells in the pancreas to reproduce at unprecedented rates. The discovery could ultimately lead to new ways to fight the disease.

Islet cells produce insulin Beta cells (pictured above in green) reproduced at unprecedented rates when exposed to betatrophin.

The Harvard University scientists behind the study call the new hormone “betatrophin.” In mice, the hormone stimulates insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas to reproduce at rates three to 12 times faster than beta cells in a control group. The researchers reported their results April 25 online in the journal Cell.

Although much more research is needed before this discovery can be translated into a therapy to be tested in humans, the finding is drawing considerable attention. Stimulating the production of, or otherwise targeting, this previously unknown hormone could become a weapon against diabetes, a growing health epidemic. The disease currently affects about 347 million people worldwide.

The most well-known hormone associated with diabetes is insulin, which is key to the body’s ability to create energy from carbohydrates in food. But in type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly attacks the beta cells that produce the insulin, sabotaging insulin production. In the vastly more common type 2 diabetes, beta cells weaken and produce less insulin or the body’s other cells fail to make use of it.

The results can be devastating — even life-threatening. Spurring insulin production could help treat both types of diabetes.

The Harvard team found that cells in the liver and fat secreted betatrophin — upping the number of beta cells in the pancreas — when the scientists infused the bloodstream of the mice with a molecule that blocked insulin receptors.

Scientists say the study opens up new avenues of investigation. City of Hope liver researcher Wendong Huang, Ph.D., who was not involved with the study, called the finding a breakthrough.

“The fact that the new hormone, betatrophin, is produced in the liver and fat suggests a novel crosstalk between liver, fat and pancreas,” said the associate professor in the Division of Molecular Diabetes Research. “Because the findings are discovered in mice, we are eager to know whether it also works the same way in humans.”

Work is underway to translate this early result into a treatment. A representative of a company partnering with the Harvard scientists suggests they may be ready to test in humans in three to four years.

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