Today, nearly 26 million people are living with diabetes in the United States, nearly 8 million of whom are undiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rise in diabetes rates, and specifically rates of type II diabetes, in the past decade can in part be attributed to a less healthy, less active population.
Type II diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, is characterized by an insulin resistance that keeps the body from absorbing glucose to be used as energy so that, instead, these sugars remain in the blood. Imagine a car sitting at a gas station, surround by gas, but with no pump to allow it to fill its tank.
The body needs glucose, or sugar, to function, and without it patients experience everything from faintness to seizures. In diabetics, glucose regulation is so poor because the majority of glucose remains in the blood, unused, and can build-up to dangerous levels. So what if, instead of relying on a malfunctioning pump (insulin resistance, in the case of diabetics), the car could find a way to make a new pump all by itself?
Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), led by postdoctoral fellow Peng Yi and co-science director of the HSCI Douglas Melton, have discovered just such a pump, but in this case, the “pump” is a hormone.
Betatrophin is a hormone found both in mice and humans that controls and could potentially jump start pancreatic beta cell production. Pancreatic beta cells naturally secrete insulin, which helps the body process glucose. Betatrophin prompts the body to create a protein that “significantly and specifically promotes pancreatic beta cell proliferation,” write the study authors.
The Insulin Key
Insulin is a hormone secreted by beta cells in the pancreas, and people living with diabetes can take insulin injections to help regulate their blood sugar levels. However, insulin injections can be painful and inconvenient and may need to be taken daily depending on the severity of the patient's illness. And as the HCSI researchers write, insulin injections aren’t always the most effective way to keep diabetes under control.
“Though [diabetes] can be treated with antidiabetic drugs or subcutaneous insulin injection, these treatments do not provide the same degree of glycemic control as functional pancreatic beta cells and do not prevent the debilitating consequences of the disease,” the study authors write.
Betatrophin naturally occurs in human livers and in mice livers and fat. Researchers injected betatrophin expression constructs into the livers of mice and found that over the eight-day period in which the betatrophin lasted, beta cell production increased by an average of almost five percent.
So, instead of a daily injection of insulin, it’s possible that a weekly or even less frequent injection of betatrophin could result in more pancreatic beta cells, which would naturally improve insulin regulation in diabetics.
While these findings are exciting, especially for their potential to help the body more naturally regulate it’s own glucose uptake, any clinical betatrophin treatment is still a few years away.