Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 1st 2013 Contents A32
body & soul
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Wednesday, May 1, 2013
A breakthrough in helping the body to produce
more insulin could make tedious injections of the
In type-two diabetes, the body gradually loses its
ability to make enough insulin to keep up with the
sugar coming in from the diet. Eventually, the over-
whelmed 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
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.
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-pro-
ducing 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-two dia-
betes, 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."
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 fac-
tories, were compromised, they couldn t be made to
What s more, they also surmised that only a spe-
cialised 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 hor-
Melton, however, whose work focuses on under-
standing how stem cells might enhance beta cell pro-
duction, 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 pop-
ulation, and the forces that cause them to falter in
diabetes, led his team to the discovery of betatrophin.
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---beta-
Over the course of a few weeks, mice bred to devel-
op 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."
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
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.
"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."
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."
New hormone could yield
new treatment for diabetes
YOUR DAILY HEALTH
News and Advice
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. PHOTO COURTESY HERALDSUN.COM
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