Animal research suggests that a naturally A produced estrogen hormone known as estradiol might help protect against diabetes by preventing the death of pancreatic cells that are critical to the production of insulin.
The findings are based on research using mice and have not yet been tested in a human trial.
"This is the first study that shows that the freemale hormone estradiol is important to ensuring pancreatic beta-cell survival in both females and males," says study coauthor Dr. Franck Mauvais Jarvis, an assistant professor in the department of medicine in the division of diabetes, endocrinology & metabolism at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Knowing that the death of insulin-producing pancreatic beta-cells causes type 1 diabetes, Mauvais-Jarvis and his colleagues attempted to isolate estradiol's impact on this beta-cell destruction.
The researchers looked at both male and female mice that were either unable to produce estradiol or had abnormal estradiol functioning.
All of the mice experienced severe beta-cell death as well as dramatically lower-than-normal levels of insulin production-leading to the on set of type 1 diabetes.
However, after the scientists administered targeted doses of estradiol to the mice, the pancreatic beta-cells were "rescued" from death, insulin production resumed and diabetes was averted.
The researchers conclude that-at least in mice-estradiol appears to protect against the chain of events that leads to type 1 diabetes.
Mauvais-Jarvis is cautiously optimistic that his study might one day benefit humans who are at risk for diabetes. "One has to be cautious, because this study has been performed in mice, and although the mouse is the best available model to study human diseases, mice are not humans," he says.
Still, Mauvais-Jarvis says the study indicates that estradiol may offer a new clinical route for the prevention of diabetes in women and men.
He stresses, however, that estrogen-replacement therapy isn't always an option, given the recent findings that such treatment appears to raise the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots. Rather he suggests that, "the future goal is to try to dissect the good and the bad uses of estradiol," in an effort to develop medicines that could prevent beta-cell deaths and diabetes without causing harmful side effects.
Dr. Robert Rizza, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, and president of the American Diabetes Association, calls the findings of the study "intriguing."
"There have been various studies that have shown that estrogen may lower the risk for developing diabetes, and this study shows why this might be the case," he says.
"It may or may not be true for humans. But it will teach us more about how estrogen works. And if it turns out to be [true], it could be used for other novel therapies to prevent diabetes."