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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Hormone boost could fight diabetes
obese man
Obesity is a recognised risk factor for diabetes
A body chemical which helps cut blood sugar levels could be an alternative treatment for some diabetics.

Scientists have suggested that the hormone adiponectin, produced naturally by fat cells, might one day help thousands with the disease.

And as the hormone may work by encouraging the body to burn up fat, non-diabetics may be able to benefit too.

Normally, the body uses the hormone insulin to control the level of glucose sugar in the blood - as raised levels can be harmful.

However, in the most common form of diabetes, known as type II, tissues become progressively less sensitive to the effects of insulin, leading to high blood sugar levels.

The hormone adiponectin appears to be able to help the body deal with this problem.

Two teams of researchers one from New York, and the other from Japan, found that treating "diabetic" mice with adiponectin for just a few hours led to reduced blood sugar levels.

Complementary treatment

While it is not clear whether it does this by affecting insulin resistance itself, or by an unrelated process, both sets of scientists are excited about the potential of the hormone.

Philipp Scherer, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said: "Activation of this protein or its receptor may offer a way to improve insulin sensitivity in insulin resistant patients, and may offer a complementary therapeutic approach to existing treatments."

An agent that burns fat is certain to be a big hit

Alan Saltiel, University of Michigan School of Medicine
The studies were published in the journal Nature Medicine, and in an accompanying editorial, Alan Saltiel, from the University of Michigan School of Medicine said that it was "hard to resist" speculating that a treatment might emerge from adiponectin.

He added: "Either way, an agent that burns fat is certain to be a big hit."

Further weight is added to the theory that adiponectin could play a role in diabetes by the fact that obese people - who are known to be more vulnerable to the illness - naturally produce less of the hormone for themselves.

Possible weight-loss

One pharmaceutical firm is already investigating its prospects as a weight-control drug after it was found that obese mice lost weight when given the hormone.

Dr Eleanor Kennedy, the research manager for Diabetes UK, was also excited by the possibilities, although keen to stress that the early nature of the research meant it could be some years before the any benefits filter through to patients.

She told BBC News Online: "We don't yet know whether these discoveries are relevant to humans, but there is certainly a lot of interest in these hormones.

"We estimate there are at least 1m people in the UK with diagnosed type II diabetes - and another 'hidden 1m' who have the disease, but don't realise it.

"We're interested in any progress towards combatting insulin resistance."

Stem cell advance

In another development, scientists have managed to use cells taken from human embryos to produce insulin-producing cells.

In theory, these could one day be transplanted into a patient suffering from another type of diabetes, type I diabetes, in whom all the vital "islet" cells have been destroyed.

These patients would die without regular injections of insulin.

The team, from Israel, used the stem cells from the embryo and managed to manipulate them into their new form in laboratory tests.

See also:

10 Jun 01 | Health
Diabetes deaths 'unnecessary'
03 Jan 01 | Health
Diabetes gene identified
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