Hormone Discovered that Promotes Insulin Production

May lead to treatments for people with diabetes

BennetArticle By Bennet Dunlap

April 26, 2013 — Harvard researchers have identified a new hormone that may lead to treatments for diabetes. Named betatrophin, the hormone has shown to promote the growth of insulin producing beta cells in mice. Their work is scheduled for publication in the May edition of the Journal Cell and is featured in the Harvard Gazette.

The Cell article is written by Peng Yi, Ji-Sun Park and Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) co-director Doug Melton. The researchers are the first to caution that there is significant work before their discovery can lead to medications for people with diabetes. "We are a long way from a treatment," says Melton in video posted by HSCI adding, "but 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."

The name betatrophin comes from the insulin-producing beta cell and the Greek word trophin meaning nourishing. The researchers' studies have shown that the introduction of betatrophin to mice significantly and rapidly increases beta cell production. The gene for betatrophin is found in all mammals, including humans, suggesting it as a possible means of treatment in people. 

People with type 2 diabetes lose beta cell over time. It is hoped that betatrophin may stimulate the creation of new beta cells to replace that gradual loss. There may also be a similar use in type 1 diabetes to slow onset of the autoimmune process that destroys insulin production.

Research is needed in order to see if there is a shortage of the hormone in people with diabetes. Before a treatment is possible, studies also must determine if increased doses of betatrophin are safe, how to produce sufficient quantities, and other issues.

The research in mice has shown that the expression of gene for betatrophin increases with pregnancy. This is logical as pregnancy requires the metabolism of increased energy from carbohydrates, hence more insulin.

This connection of betatrophin and pregnancy may be a possible explanation of the phenomenon of women with full onset type 1 diabetes producing insulin while pregnant although it should be noted we know of no studies investigating that possibility.

The transition of basic discovery and research like this to actual treatments in people is a long and costly process. The potential of betatrophin has attracted licensing that can help that process with agreements from the German biotech company Evotec and Jansen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson and Johnson. 


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NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition.

Last Modified Date: May 22, 2013

All content on dLife.com is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.
  1. Cell Press. Betatrophin: A hormone that controls pancreatic beta cell proliferation, http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(13)00449-2. (Accessed 05/08/13.)
  2. Diabetes Care. Pregnancy-induced rise in serum c-peptide concentrations in women with type 1 diabetes, http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/32/6/1052.short. (Accessed 05/08/13.)
  3. NPR. Researchers find hormone that grows insulin-producing cells, http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/04/25/179037483/researchers-find-hormone-that-grows-insulin-producing-cells. (Accessed 05/08/13.)
  4. Harvard Gazette. Potential diabetes breakthrough, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/04/potential-diabetes-breakthrough. (Accessed 05/08/13.)
  5. YouTube. Potential diabetes breakthrough, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk4DDlct__4. (Accessed 05/08/13.)

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