April 26, 2013
Hormone Could Lead To Improved Diabetes Treatment Options
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe OnlineCell, HSCI co-director Doug Melton and postdoctoral fellow Peng Yi report betatrophin causes the production rate of insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells to increase by as much as 30 times normal levels.
According to the study, which was published online Thursday and will appear in the May 9 print edition of the journal, these new beta cells only produce insulin when instructed to do so by the body, which potentially could lead to increased natural regulation of insulin and a potential reduction in diabetes-related complications.
There is still a lot of work that needs to be completed before this approach can be used to treat the estimated 26 million Americans who suffer from type 2 diabetes. However, they note their work could also help treat type 1 (juvenile) diabetes and has already caught the attention of pharmaceutical companies.
“If this could be used in people, it could eventually mean 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,” said Melton, who is also the co-chair of the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology.
“Our idea here is relatively simple. We would provide this hormone, the type 2 diabetic will make more of their own insulin-producing cells, and this will slow down, if not stop, the progression of their diabetes,” he added. “I've never seen any treatment that causes such an enormous leap in beta cell replication.”
Melton, who began researching type 1 diabetes after his son was diagnosed with the condition more than 15 years ago, and Yi have already reached a collaborative agreement with German biotech company Evotec. Evotec has 15 researchers working on betatrophin, HSCI official said, and the compound has also been licensed to Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Johnson & Johnson company which is also working on 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,” Melton said. “We were just wondering what happens when an animal doesn't have enough insulin. We were lucky to find this new gene that had largely gone unnoticed before."
They spent four years working on the project before making a breakthrough on February 10 of last year. Yi said he was watching beta cells replicate under a microscope, and was surprised by how quickly they were reproducing. He printed out an image of what he witnessed and showed it to Melton.
“I remember this very well. It's a black-and-white picture where you're looking at a section, like a section through a sausage, of the whole pancreas. When you normally look at a black-and-white picture of that, it's very hard to tell where the beta cells are, the insulin cells,” Melton explained.
“But in this test, any cell that was dividing would shine up bright and white, like a sparkle. He showed me this picture where the whole pancreas is largely black, but then there were these clusters, like stars of these white dots, which turned out to be all over the islets, the place where the beta cell sits,” he added. “It's one of those moments when you know something interesting has happened. This is not by accident. I've never seen any treatment that causes such an enormous leap “¦ in beta cell replication.”