By Selena Hill ( | First Posted: Apr 27, 2013 02:19 PM EDT

A type 1 diabetic patient fills her syringe with insulin at the J.W.C.H. safety-net clinic in the center of skid row in downtown Los Angeles, July 30, 2007. (Photo : REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson )

Harvard researchers may have discovered a way for the more than 25 million people suffering from diabetes nationwide to avoid frequent insulin shots.

Diabetes is a condition that causes high blood sugar that can lead to heart disease, kidney failure and blindness. Type 2 diabetes is commonly triggered by a combination of obesity and lack of exercise, and it causes the individual to slowly lose beta cells.

Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute discovered a hormone called betatrophin which triggers the growth of pancreatic "beta" cells lost or ineffective in those with diabetes. Insulin is produced by beta cells in the pancreas. However, an injectable form of this hormone could dramatically improve treatments for Type 2 diabetes. 

"If this could be used in people 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," said study senior author Doug Melton of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

The scientists found that betatrophin causes lab mice to produce the cells at up to 30 times the normal rate.

"This is really an amazing discovery. Hormones with this kind of effect aren't discovered very often, and this opens a whole new pathway to treating diabetes," diabetes expert Jake Kushner of the McNair Medical Institute at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston told USA Today.

What's interesting is that the breakthrough came at a lab devoted to stem cell research. Melton, who has two children diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, has for the last decade and more been exploring stem cell approaches to treating children born with the disease.

"I would like to tell you this discovery came from deep thinking and we knew we would find this, but it was more a bit of luck," said Melton. "We were just wondering what happens when an animal doesn't have enough insulin. We were lucky to find this new gene that had largely gone unnoticed before."

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