Sunday, 28 April 2013

Diabetes, Betatrophin and Treating Insulin Resistance

Scientists have made an exciting discovery that may be very significant for people with Type 2 diabetes. Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have found a new hormone in mice that causes their pancreas to make beta cells up to thirty times faster than normal. Beta cells make insulin. The reason why the discovery of betatrophin is so significant is that increasing the number of beta cells in diabetic humans may give them the extra insulin that they need.
Betatrophin increases the number of beta cells in mice.
Photo by Tiia Monto at Wikimedia Commons,
CC BY-SA 3.0 License

Type 2 diabetes is a serious and escalating health problem in which the body's cells lose some of their ability to respond to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that stimulates the passage of glucose, or blood sugar, through the cell membrane. Glucose passes from the blood into the cells, which use it to produce energy. If the movement of glucose through the cell membrane stops, the cells are starved of their energy source and the blood sugar level rises. A continuously high blood sugar can cause serious health problems, including nervous system, cardiovascular and kidney disorders.

In people with Type 2 diabetes the beta cells in the pancreas make insulin, but the body's cells have lost some of their sensitivity to the hormone, a disorder known as insulin resistance. More insulin than normal is needed to enable a sufficient quantity of glucose to enter the person's cells. About 26 million people in the United States suffer from Type 2 diabetes.

The gene for producing betatrophin has been found in humans as well as in mice, and so has the betatrophin hormone. Administering extra betatrophin to a person with Type 2 diabetes could stimulate their pancreas to produce extra beta cells, which in turn might produce the extra insulin that the person needs.

Betatrophin may help people with Type 1 diabetes too, although this is less certain. In this type of diabetes the person's immune system has destroyed the beta cells in the pancreas, preventing the formation of insulin. The researchers suggest that betatrophin administered in the earliest stages of the disease, when some beta cells are still present, might be helpful.

Much more research needs to be done before betatrophin is used as a medication. Scientists need to make sure that betatrophin has the same effects in humans as it does in mice, and they need to make sure that giving people extra betatrophin is safe as well as effective. Drug companies have already expressed interest in the research, and the researchers predict that clinical trials will take place in three to five years time. This is an amazingly short interval between the time of a drug discovery and the time when it undergoes clinical tests.

The increasing incidence of obesity in many countries is fueling the increase in insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. Ideally, these problems would be solved by helping people to improve their diet and get regular exercise. However, obesity is a complex condition and may not always be due to a bad diet and lack of exercise. The use of betatrophin as a medication could give doctors a great way to improve the life of diabetics.

In the video below the Harvard Stem Cell Institute scientists describe their discovery.