CHICAGO -- University of Chicago researchers say they have discovered a gene responsible for non-insulin-dependent diabetes, the most common form of the dangerous metabolic disorder that afflicts 11 million Americans.
The gene, which makes an enzyme involved in the regulation of the hormone insulin, is the first direct evidence of a cause of one of humankind's most ancient and devastating ailments.
"We think it's a smoking gun," said the team's leader, Dr. Graeme Bell, professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and medicine at the university's Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The discovery could soon lead to drugs to make the enzyme work better and could open the door to a new treatment, he said yesterday.
The discovery provides the first ray of hope in a disorder whose researchers had fallen on hard times. Diabetes genes had eluded science in the past.
"But we think this one's the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Bell said. "We've been looking for such a gene for a long time."
He said the discovery proves that diabetes "is truly a disorder of glucose (sugar) metabolism." The enzyme, called glucokinase, is involved in the conversion of glucose to energy in cells.
Although other diabetes genes remain to be found, Mr. Bell predicted that such discoveries within a few years could lead to better treatments of one of medicine's most baffling biochemical mysteries.
Diabetes and its complications kill a thousand Americans every day; only heart disease and cancer kill more. And each day, 2,000 more Americans are diagnosed with it.
In non-insulin-dependent diabetes, or Type 2, the "sugar sickness" steals in subtly. The body does not produce enough insulin or fails to respond to the insulin it does produce.