New Diabetes Treatment Just Around The Corner
Diabetes is a metabolic disease characterized by high blood sugar, either because the pancreas is not capable of producing enough insulin, or the cells are unresponsive to the insulin that the pancreas produces. Recently, a team of scientists from the HSCI (Harvard Stem Cell Institute) discovered that a new hormone might be capable of increasing the effectiveness of both types of diabetes. Currently, diabetes affects approximately 26 million US residents. Their paper was published in the online journal Cell, followed by a publication in the May 9th printed edition of the journal.
The hormone in question in called betatrophin. The research team observed that it caused laboratory mice to produce high amounts of pancreatic beta-cells. These are the cells responsible for the secretion of insulin. The newly formed beta-cells only produce insulin when the organism needs them to, thus the organism is capable of naturally regulating the production of insulin. This could possibly lead to the reduction of the medical complications that are associated with diabetes.
The leaders of the research team, postdoctoral fellow Peng Yi and the co-director of the institute, Doug Melton, say that there is still a lot of research to be conducted before the new hormone will be released as a treatment for human patients. Melton, one of the few University Professors from Harvard notes that, “Instead of taking insulin injections three times a day, you might take an injection of this hormone once a week or once a month, or in the best case maybe even once a year”.
Type 2 diabetes is currently associated with the United States obesity epidemic. The onset of the disorder is frequently associated with lack of physical exercise and excessive eating. These cause the patients’ pancreas to lose a part of its beta-cells, thus leading to an inappropriate production of insulin. Recent studies have shown that the treatment of diabetes and its complications makes up for almost 10% of the US medical health bill.
Professor Melton says that through the injection of this hormone into diabetic patients will cause their pancreas to produce new beta-cells, thus increasing the secretion of insulin and slowing down the progression of diabetes. Although the hormone is believed to be an effective treatment for type 2 diabetes, the researchers believe that progression towards the treatment of type 1 diabetes can also be made through the use of betatrophin. Melton added that even though the first studies were done on laboratory mice, they already discovered the human gene responsible for the production of betatrophin. He also suggested that the new hormone could be ready for human clinical trials in less than five years.
The research team led by Melton and Yi have signed a collaboration with Evotec, a German drug research company located in Hamburg. Currently Evotec has a team of 15 researchers that are studying betatrophin. Janssen Pharmaceuticals licensed the new hormone under their company and has also dispatched a team of researchers in order to speed up the admittance of the drug into human clinical trials.
When they first discovered the molecule, Melton and Yi, named it “Rabbit” due to the fact that it caused the pancreatic beta-cells to quickly multiply. Professor Melton initially began his studies on type 1 diabetes when his son was diagnosed with the disorder. The majority of his studies included the use of stem cells. However, it wasn’t the stem cells that led him to the discovery of betatrophin. “I would like to tell you this discovery came from deep thinking and we knew we would find this, but it was more a bit of luck”, said professor Melton.
One of the questions that were asked was “What happens during pregnancy?”. Due to pregnancy, the need for carbohydrates increases and so does the need for insulin. According to the researchers, the levels of betatrophin in pregnant mice was higher than the levels found in female mice that weren’t pregnant. Melton and Yi’s medical breakthrough came after almost 4 years of continuous research. Yi recounts that he ran into Melton’s office with a printed image of what he just discovered under the microscope. “I showed him this picture and told him this is a secreted protein, and he was really, really excited about this result”, said Yi.
According to Professor Melton, the paper that Yi brought him was a black and white paper of the pancreas. Usually, the cells that are photographed during their division appear as white spots on the black conformation of the pancreas. The black and white photograph showed a lot of small clusters of white spots. “I’ve never seen any treatment that causes such an enormous leap in beta cell replication”, concluded Professor Melton.