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Hormone May Help Fight Diabetes, Research Suggests

By Lauren E. Claus, Contributing Writer

Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have discovered a hormone which may lead to new treatments for patients afflicted with diabetes.

In a study that was published in the journal Cell last Thursday, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute Professor Douglas A. Melton and postdoctoral fellow Peng Yi discovered that when a specific hormone called betatrophin was over-expressed in the tissues of mice, the production of beta cells in the pancreas dramatically increased.

Pancreatic beta cells are responsible for secreting insulin, the hormone required for the regulation of glucose. Levels of insulin are abnormally low in the bloodstreams of diabetic patients.

According to Yi, the same increase in beta cell production may occur in the pancreases of humans with abnormally high amounts of betatrophin because the gene that encodes betatrophin “has similar expression patterns” in mice and humans.

According to the researchers, this discovery may offer new treatment possibilities for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes patients, who according to the American Diabetes Association, number around 25 million in the United States alone. While current treatment plans for diabetes patients include frequent daily injections of insulin, the study’s results may significantly reduce or even eliminate the need for such injections.

“Our story suggests that if you inject betatrophin in [a] patient, you may have increased beta cell production,” Yi said. “This may help the diabetes patients.”

Melton and Yi are currently collaborating with the pharmaceutical companies Evotec and Janseen Pharmaceuticals to further research the potential implications of their results on the treatment of human patients.

Yi cautions, however, that much more work needs to be done to prove that increasing the level of betatrophin in patients is a valid mechanism of treating diabetes in humans.

“We’ve found something new with dramatic effects, but until we do something related to human beta cells, it is too early to say,” Yi said.

Nevertheless, Yi said that the discovery of betatrophin’s association with insulin secretion is a “promising” advancement in the development of treatments for diabetes.

Melton also described the encouraging nature of the results.

“I’ve never seen any treatment that causes such an enormous leap in beta cell replication,” Melton said in a recent press release.

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