A six-day scientific mystery surrounding Harvard’s stem cell institute was initially solved (or guessed at) yesterday by CIRM grantee and blogger at UC Davis Paul Knoepfler (here is his blog entry).
This morning at 12pm Harvard time his prediction was proved right — researchers at the institute had published a paper revealing a hormone that prods stem cells in the pancreas to divide and generate new insulin-producing cells. The work could be big news for people with type 2 (so-called adult onset) diabetes, in which cells of the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin for all the body’s cells. As the disease progresses these people end up injecting insulin to meet their body’s demand for the hormone. 26 million people in the U.S. have the disease, which can lead to blindness, kidney damage, nerve damage and issues with circulation if it’s not controlled properly.
The work was published April 25 in the journal Cell, which kept the paper under tight wraps until the embargo lifted this morning. Harvard had been hinting about the publication on their Facebook page April 19, but because of Cell‘s embargo policies couldn’t post their announcement until after the journal unveiled the paper. Harvard’s Facebook page carried a link to their announcement minutes later.
In their announcement, Harvard’s Doug Melton, who led the work, said:
“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.”
Of course, he also says that so far they’ve only tested the hormone in mice, and youngish ones at that, as Matthias Hebrok, director of the University of California, San Francisco, Diabetes Center points out in a news story about the work in Nature. They hope to start testing the hormone in clinical trials in three to five years. They say it’ll take two years just to produce enough of the hormone, which is called betatropin, to be used in the trials.