Millions of diabetics could be freed from having to inject themselves several times a day by a once-a-year drug.
Scientists have discovered a hormone which can boost the number of insulin-making cells by up to 30-fold.
This would ‘dramatically’ improve treatment for type 2 diabetes. This form of the condition, often triggered by weight gain, is becoming more common in the obesity crisis.
Researchers from Harvard University believe the betatrophin hormone may even have the power to halt type 2 diabetes in its tracks.
‘It could eventually mean that, instead of taking insulin injections three times a day, you might be able to take this hormone once a week or once a month, or in the best case, maybe once a year,’ they said.
In patients with type 2, or adult-onset diabetes, cells in the pancreas do not make enough insulin, a hormone vital to the conversion of sugar into energy. Insulin they do make does not work properly.
Initially, the condition is often controlled with a stringent diet and exercise regime. But many patients will suffer worsening health over time, eventually needing tablets or insulin injections.
Seeking an alternative to simply giving insulin, the US researchers looked for a way of boosting its production in the body.
This led them to a hormone which they christened betatrophin.
Given to mice, it raised the number of insulin-producing beta cells by up to 30-fold, reported the journal Cell.
In addition, the ‘enormous’ number of new cells only made insulin when needed, which should lead to more natural blood sugar levels and better
Researcher Professor Doug Melton said the discovery had left him so excited that he could hardly sleep. He added: ‘Our idea is relatively simple.
‘We would provide this hormone, the type 2 diabetic will make more of their insulin-producing cells and this will slow down, if not stop, the progression of their diabetes.’ Drug firms have already seized on the breakthrough and the hormone could be tested on people in just three years.
However, the need to show it would be safe and effective in large numbers of people means it is a decade away from the market.
Complications of high blood sugar include heart disease, blindness, and nerve and circulatory damage.
It is thought that one in 20 Britons has diabetes, with type 2 making up 90 per cent of the cases.
The US work may also be useful in treating type 1 diabetes, which typically develops in childhood or adolescence.