Creative Minds: Potential Diabetes Lessons from Binge-Eating Snakes

Secor with a snake

Stephen Secor/Credit: Secor Lab

Many people would do just about anything to avoid an encounter with a snake. Not Stephen Secor. Growing up in central New York State, Secor was drawn to them. He’d spend hours frolicking through forest and field, flipping rocks and hoping to find one. His animal-loving mother encouraged him to keep looking, and she even let him keep a terrarium full of garter snakes in his bedroom. Their agreement: He must take good care of them—and please make sure they don’t get loose.

As a teen, Secor considered a career as a large-animal veterinarian. But a college zoology course led him right back to his fascination with snakes. Now a professor at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, he’s spent 25 years trying to understand how some snakes, such as the Burmese python shown above, can fast for weeks or even months, and then go on a sudden food binge. Secor’s interest in the feast-or-famine digestive abilities of these snakes has now taken an unexpected turn that he never saw coming: a potential treatment to help people with diabetes.

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NIH-Funded Research Makes Science’s “Top 10” List

NIH-funded AAAS/Science Editors' Choice for 2014 Breakthroughs of the YearModeled after Time’s Person of the Year, the journal Science has a tradition of honoring the year’s most groundbreaking research advances. For 2014, the European Space Agency nabbed first place with the Rosetta spacecraft’s amazing landing on a comet. But biomedical science also was well represented on the “Top 10” list—with NIH helping to support at least four of the advances. So, while I’ve highlighted some of these in the past, I can’t think of a better way for the NIH Director to ring in the New Year than to take a brief look back at these remarkable achievements!

Youth serum for real? Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon may have never discovered the Fountain of Youth, but researchers have engineered an exciting new lead. Researchers fused the circulatory systems of young and old mice to create a shared blood supply. In the old mice, the young blood triggered new muscle and more neural connections, and follow-up studies revealed that their memory formation improved. The researchers discovered that a gene called Creb prompts the rejuvenation. Block the protein produced by Creb, and the young blood loses its anti-aging magic [1]. Another team discovered that a factor called GDF11 increased the number of neural stem cells and stimulated the growth of new blood vessels in the brains of older animals [2].

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Stem Cell Science: Taking Aim at Type 1 Diabetes

human stem cell-derived beta cells

Caption: Insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells (green) derived from human embryonic stem cells that have formed islet-like clusters in a mouse. The red cells are producing another metabolic hormone, glucagon, that regulates blood glucose levels. Blue indicates cell nuclei.
Credit: Photo by B. D. Colen/Harvard Staff; Image courtesy of Doug Melton

For most of the estimated 1 to 3 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes, every day brings multiple fingerpricks to manage their blood glucose levels with replacement insulin [1,2]. The reason is that their own immune systems have somehow engaged in friendly fire on small, but vital, clusters of cells in the pancreas known as the islets—which harbor the so-called “beta cells” that make insulin. So, it’s no surprise that researchers seeking ways to help people with type 1 diabetes have spent decades trying a find a reliable way to replace these islets.

Islet replacement has proven to be an extremely difficult research challenge for a variety of reasons, but exciting opportunities are now on the horizon. Notably, a team of researchers, led by Douglas Melton of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and partially funded by NIH, reported groundbreaking success just last week in spurring a human embryonic stem cell (hESC) line and two human-induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines to differentiate into the crucial, insulin-producing beta cells. Not only did cells generated from all three of these lines look like human pancreatic beta cells, they functioned like bona fide, glucose-responsive beta cells in a mouse model of type 1 diabetes [3].

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More Beta Cells, More Insulin, Less Diabetes

Artist redition of a liver, WAT fat, and BAT fat cells combining with green dots representing betatrophin combining to induce pancreatic cells

Caption: Betatrophin, a natural hormone produced in liver and fat cells, triggers the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas to replicate
Credit: Douglas Melton and Peng Yi

Type 2 diabetes (T2D) has arguably reached epidemic levels in this country; between 22 and 24 million people suffer from the disease. But now there’s an exciting new development: scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have discovered a hormone that might slow or stop the progression of diabetes [1].

T2D is the most common type of diabetes, accounting for about 95% of cases. The hallmark is high blood sugar. It is linked to obesity, which increases the body’s demand for more and more insulin. T2D develops when specific insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, called beta cells, become exhausted and can’t keep up with the increased demand. With insufficient insulin, blood glucose levels rise. Over time, these high levels of glucose can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage, and even amputations. T2D can be helped by weight loss and exercise, but often oral medication or insulin shots are ultimately needed. Continue reading