Oestrogen offers the pancreatic cells that produce insulin (red) protection against type 2 diabetes. Credit: B. Xu et al./Cell Rep.

Medical research

Oestrogen holds promise for diabetes cure

Treatment with the hormone helps to prevent the death of insulin-producing cells.

Oestrogen can protect women who have been through menopause against type 2 diabetes — seemingly by triggering the destruction of misfolded insulin proteins that accumulate during the early stages of the disease.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, fails to control blood sugar levels. During the initial stages of the disease, pancreatic cells overproduce insulin. This overwhelms the machinery that these cells use to assemble new proteins, and causes misfolded proteins to accumulate, killing the cells.

Franck Mauvais-Jarvis at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and his colleagues treated mice genetically prone to insulin misfolding with oestrogen. The hormone induced a pathway in pancreatic cells that promoted the destruction of misfolded proteins and preserved the cells’ ability to secrete insulin. The cells stopped dying and the mice continued to regulate their blood sugar levels.

A better understanding of this process could lead to new treatments for diabetes, and possibly for other disorders of protein misfolding, such as Alzheimer’s disease.