A hormone has been discovered that may improve Type 2 diabetes treatment options for patients stricken with the disease.

Harvard researchers found that β trophin, or betatrophin, a hormone secreted by liver and fat cells, increases production of insulin-secreting pancreatic cells to drastically improve glycemic control.

The study's findings, which appeared online on April 25 in Cell, indicated that in mice the hormone could be produced at 30 times the normal rate, suggesting it could play a role in improving the health of victims of Type 2, or even Type 1 diabetes.

"If this could be used in people," said Douglas Melton, co-author of the study and co-chair of Harvard's stem cell and regenerative biology department, "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."

Diabetes afflicts nearly 26 million people in the United States, and in 90 to 95 percent of the cases the diagnosis is Type 2. Seven million Americans remain unaware they have the disease.

Melton and postdoctoral fellow Peng Yi urge that additional research be performed, as they are still long away from administering the treatment to people. However, they've already been tapped by several pharmaceutical companies.

"Our idea here is relatively simple," Melton said. "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. I've never seen any treatment that causes such an enormous leap in beta cell replication."

In mice, the hormone treatment triggered mass production of insulin naturally, which could help researchers find a way to naturally regulate insulin-- potentially reducing the need for insulin injections.

"We've done the work in mice," Melton said. "But of course we're not interested in curing mice of diabetes, and we now know the gene is a human gene. We've cloned the human gene and, moreover, we know that the hormone exists in human plasma; betatrophin definitely exists in humans."

The hormone could also play a major role is reducing damage during the onset of the disease.

Diabetes also causes a number of other complications, including kidney failure, blindness, and amputations. It can also lead to cerebrovascular, heart and periodontal diseases, as well as hypertension and stroke.

Lifestyle choices such as maintaining a healthy diet, healthy weight, and keeping active could prevent or vastly improve living with Type 2 diabetes.

The study is expected to be publish in the May 9 print issue of Cell.