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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Cell. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2014 May 9.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3756510

This article has been retractedRetraction in: Cell. 2017 January 24; 168(1-2): 326    See also: PMC Retraction Policy

Betatrophin: a hormone that controls pancreatic β cell proliferation


Replenishing insulin-producing pancreatic β cell mass will benefit both type I and type II diabetics. In adults, pancreatic β cells are generated primarily by self duplication. We report on a novel mouse model of insulin resistance that induces dramatic pancreatic β cell proliferation and β cell mass expansion. Using this model we identify a new hormone, betatrophin, that is primarily expressed in liver and fat. Expression of betatrophin correlates with β cell proliferation in other mouse models of insulin resistance and during gestation. Transient expression of betatrophin in mouse liver significantly and specifically promotes pancreatic β cell proliferation, expands β cell mass, and improves glucose tolerance. Thus, betatrophin treatment could augment or replace insulin injections by increasing the number of endogenous insulin-producing cells in diabetics.


Diabetes results from dysfunctional carbohydrate metabolism that is caused by a relative deficiency of insulin. It has become a major threat to human health, the prevalence of which is estimated to be 2.8% worldwide (171 million affected), and predicted to rise to 4.4% (366 million) by 2030 (Wild et al., 2004). Around 10% of diabetics in the United States are type I, a disease caused by an autoimmune attack on pancreatic β cells and a consequent β cell deficiency. The majority of diabetics are type II, characterized by interrelated metabolic disorders that include decreased β cell function, peripheral insulin resistance, and, eventually, β cell failure and loss or dedifferentiation (Scheen and Lefebvre, 1996; Talchai et al., 2012). While the disease can be treated with anti-diabetic drugs or subcutaneous insulin injection, these treatments do not provide the same degree of glycemic control as functional pancreatic β cells and do not prevent the debilitating consequences of the disease. Treatments that replenish β cell mass in diabetic patients could allow for the long-term restoration of normal glycemic control and thus represent a potentially curative therapy. Despite the fact that the primary causes for type I and type II diabetes differ, all diabetics will benefit from treatments that replenish their β cell mass.

While there is some evidence that mouse β cells can be derived from rare adult progenitors under extreme circumstances (Xu et al., 2008), the vast majority of new β cells are generated by simple self-duplication (Dor et al., 2004; Meier et al., 2008; Teta et al., 2007). After a rapid expansion in embryonic and neonatal stages, β cells replicate at an extremely low rate (less than 0.5% divide per day) in adult rodents (Teta et al., 2005) and humans (Meier et al., 2008). However, pancreatic β cells retain the capacity to elevate their replication rate in response to physiological challenges including gestation (Parsons et al., 1992; Rieck et al., 2009), high blood sugar (Alonso et al., 2007), pancreatic injury (Cano et al., 2008; Nir et al., 2007), and peripheral insulin resistance (Bruning et al., 1997; Kulkarni et al., 2004; Michael et al., 2000; Pick et al., 1998).

The genetic mechanisms controlling β cell proliferation are incompletely understood. The cell cycle regulators cyclin D1/D2 and CDK4 promote β cell proliferation (Georgia and Bhushan, 2004; Kushner et al., 2005; Rane et al., 1999) and cell cycle related transcription factors such as E2F1/2 are essential for pancreatic β cell proliferation (Fajas et al., 2004; Iglesias et al., 2004). On the contrary, cell cycle inhibitors including p15Ink4b, p18Ink4c and p27Kip1 repress β cell replication (Latres et al., 2000; Pei et al., 2004; Uchida et al., 2005). Other genes reported to regulate β cell proliferation include NFAT, Menin, p53, Rb and Irs2 (Crabtree et al., 2003; Harvey et al., 1995; Heit et al., 2006; Kubota et al., 2000; Williams et al., 1994).

In addition to the factors listed above, which are expressed in β cells themselves and act in a cell-autonomous fashion, there are several reports showing that systematic or circulating factors can regulate β cell replication and mass. Glucose itself is a β cell mitogen; infusion of glucose in rodents causes a mild increase in β cell replication (Alonso et al., 2007; Bernard et al., 1998; Bonner-Weir et al., 1989). And glucokinase defects significantly decrease the compensatory proliferation of pancreatic β cells in some contexts (Terauchi et al., 2007). In addition, genetic deletion of glucokinase in β cells can reduce replication rates, whereas pharmacological activation of this enzyme increases replication by 2 fold (Porat et al., 2011). Several hormones, including insulin, placental lactogen and prolactin also play a role in regulating β cell mass (Bernard et al., 1998; Paris et al., 2003; Parsons et al., 1992; Sachdeva and Stoffers, 2009). The incretin hormones glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide (GIP) increase insulin secretion and promote β cell replication (reviewed in (Drucker, 2006)). However, from a therapeutic perspective, the problem with manipulating most of the genes and hormones currently known to impact β cell replication is their lack of β cell specificity and/or the fact that the magnitude of their effect on β cell proliferation is quite modest.

Transplantation studies in mice have shown that insulin resistance results in a circulating islet cell growth factor independent of glucose and obesity (Flier et al., 2001). And in a telling demonstration, the liver specific deletion of the insulin receptor results in a dramatic compensatory increase pancreatic β cell replication (Michael et al., 2000). Similarly, overexpression of a constitutively active MEK1 kinase in mouse liver increases the replication rate in pancreatic β cells and improves glucose tolerance in disease models through an innervation-dependent mechanism (Imai et al., 2008). Precisely how the liver signals pancreatic β cells to proliferate is unknown, but recent work by Kulkarni’s group points to the possibility that liver cells secrete a protein that acts directly on islet cells (El Ouaamari et al., 2013; Flier et al., 2001).

In this study we aimed to identify secreted signals that control pancreatic β cell proliferation. As a first step we developed a novel insulin resistance mouse model wherein β cell replication can be rapidly induced at will. We show that administration of an insulin receptor antagonist induces acute peripheral insulin resistance and leads to a dramatic proliferation in pancreatic β cells and subsequent β cell mass expansion. Using this model, we identified a gene encoding a secreted protein that is expressed in liver and fat and whose expression level is elevated upon insulin resistance. We called this gene betatrophin because its overexpression in mouse liver produces a secreted protein that significantly and specifically promotes pancreatic β cell proliferation, β cell mass expansion, and consequently improves glucose tolerance.


Administration of an insulin receptor antagonist induces insulin resistance and pancreatic β cell proliferation

Previous work showed that when the insulin pathway is blocked in vivo in the liver pancreatic β cell mass expands and there is an increase in insulin secretion as a compensatory response (Bruning et al., 1997; Michael et al., 2000). To investigate the signals that control this type of β cell compensatory growth, we explored a new pharmacological model of severe insulin resistance. S961 is a peptide (43aa) that binds the insulin receptor and antagonizes insulin signaling both in vitro and in vivo in rats (Schaffer et al., 2008). We used osmotic pumps to infuse adult mice with various doses of S961. The data in Figure 1A show that S961 causes hyperglycemia in a dose dependent manner. A high dose of S961 infused for a week makes the mice glucose intolerant (Figure 1B and 1C), consistent with the fact that S961 blocks the insulin receptor. Plasma insulin levels rise at all doses of the insulin antagonist, presumably due to the compensatory effort of pancreatic β cells (Figure 1D).

Figure 1
Administration of the insulin receptor antagonist S961 induces glucose intolerance, hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia

To examine whether S961 induces a compensatory β cell proliferation, as seen in other insulin resistance models, the β cell proliferation rate was analyzed by Ki67 and insulin immunofluorescence for all dosage groups following S961 treatment. S961 treatment results in a dramatic increase in β cell proliferation (Figure 2A), which is both immediate and dose dependent (Figure 2B and Figure S1A–E). The effect of S961 on β cell replication rates is strong, but transient: 4 days after osmotic pump removal, β cell replication rates return to normal (Figure S1F). The proliferation in β cells was confirmed by immunostaining for a nuclear β cell marker (Nkx6.1) and a different cell division marker (PCNA, Figure S2A and S2B). Quantitative PCR analysis of cell cycle regulators shows that the expression level of several Cyclins (Cyclin A1, A2, B1, B2, E1 and F), CDKs (CDK1 and CDK2), E2Fs (E2F1 and E2F2) increase, while the expression of cell cycle inhibitors (Cdkn1a, Cdkn1b and Cdkn2b) decreases in pancreatic islets following S961 treatment (Figure S3A). Even a low dose of S961 (5nmol/week), which does not detectably alter blood glucose levels, produces a modest but reproducible increase in β cell replication (~4.3-fold increase, Figure 2B). At the highest dose tested, S961 treatment resulted in a ~12-fold increase in β cell replication (Figure 2B), a rate vastly exceeding any previously reported pharmacological treatment.

Figure 2
Administration of the insulin receptor antagonist S961 induces pancreatic β cell proliferation and β cell mass expansion

The increase in β cell replication rate appears to affect all pancreatic islets equally (Figure S3B) and leads to an increase in total β cell area of approximately 3-fold within 1 week (Figure 2C–E), primarily resulting from an increase in islet size (Figure S3C). Though β cell mass expands after S961 treatment, pancreatic insulin content decreases (Figure 2F) possibly because β cells secrete more of their insulin into circulation as a consequence of insulin resistance. Though treatment of mice with a low dose of S961 (2.5 nMol/week) does not produce a detectable increase in β cell proliferation at day 7, as measured by Ki67 (Figure 2B), their β cell mass is nonetheless about 1.5-fold higher than the control. Quantification of average β cell size shows no significant difference between vehicle and S961 treated animals (Figure S3D). Thus, the increased β cell mass observed at the low dose of S961 (2.5nMol/week) is not likely due to β cell hypertrophy but rather to the result of a transient increase of β cell proliferation prior to day 7 of S961 treatment. The proliferation induced by S961 administration is highly specific to pancreatic β cells. No obvious differences in cell proliferation rates were noticed, between control and S961 treated animals, for other pancreatic cell types, including other endocrine cells, exocrine cells, and duct cells, nor for liver, white fat or brown fat (Figure 2G).

Identification of Betatrophin in S961 treated mouse liver and white fat

To understand how S961 induces β cell proliferation, we first applied it directly to mouse β cells in vitro to see whether this insulin antagonist works in a β cell autonomous manner, but there was no detectable effect (data not shown). Based on this, we hypothesized that S961 acts indirectly on β cells, and analyzed gene expression in tissues involved in metabolic regulation (liver, white fat, skeletal muscle), in addition to pancreatic β cells themselves, to identify potential mediators of the effect. Microarray analysis pointed to one gene, which we call betatrophin (Figure 3A). Betatrophin is upregulated in S961 treated liver (~4 fold) and white fat (~3 fold), but its expression is unchanged in skeletal muscle and pancreatic β cells (Figure 3B) in response to S961.

Figure 3
Identification and expression of betatrophin

Betatrophin encodes a predicted protein of 198 amino acids (the mouse gene was previously annotated as Gm6484 and the protein as EG624219; the human gene is annotated as C19orf80 and the protein Hepatocellular Carcinoma-Associated protein TD26 (Dong et al., 2004)). The gene has 4 exons and lies within the intron of another gene, Dock6, on the opposite strand (Figure S4A). Betatrophin is highly conserved in all mammalian species examined (Figure S4B), but evidently absent in non-mammalian vertebrates and in invertebrates (data not shown).

Betatrophin is enriched in liver and fat tissues and its expression correlates with high pancreatic β cell proliferation rates

Betatrophin mRNA is expressed in mouse liver and fat, with minimal expression in other tissues examined (Figure 3C), consistent with previous reports (Quagliarini, 2012; Ren et al., 2012; Zhang, 2012). In humans, betatrophin is primarily expressed in the liver (Figure 3D) where betatrophin mRNA levels are more than 250 fold higher than that found in other tissues tested. Betatrophin protein can also be detected by western blotting in human liver (Figure 4J).

Figure 4
Betatrophin encodes a secreted protein

To determine whether betatrophin might be involved in regulating β cell replication in other contexts, we examined betatrophin mRNA expression by quantitative PCR in several physiologically relevant animal models of increased β cell replication. Infusion of the insulin receptor antagonist S961, which causes a dramatic pancreatic β cell proliferation, leads to a 6 fold upregulation of betatrophin in liver and 4 fold in white fat (Figure 3E), consistent with the microarray analysis (Figure 3B). In mouse models of type II diabetes, there is increased pancreatic β cell mass (Bock et al., 2003; Gapp et al., 1983; Tomita et al., 1992; Wang and Brubaker, 2002) and betatrophin mRNA is upregulated 3–4 fold in the liver of both ob/ob and db/db mice (Figure 3F). β cell replication rates also increase during pregnancy (Karnik et al., 2007) and expression of betatrophin mRNA in the liver increases by about 20 fold over the course of gestation (Figure 3G). Finally, specific depletion of β cells with diphtheria toxin leads to increased β cell replication (Nir et al., 2007). This treatment did not stimulate changes in betatrophin mRNA expression in the liver (data not shown). Together, these results indicate that betatrophin expression may contribute to compensatory pancreatic β cell proliferation in response to physiological challenges, but not in a regeneration response after acute injury.

Betatrophin encodes a secreted protein

How might a protein produced in the liver and fat cause pancreatic β cells to divide? Sequence analysis of mouse and human betatrophin shows a predicted secretion signal at the N-terminus and two coiled coil domains (Figure 4A). To demonstrate that betatrophin is indeed a secreted protein, expression plasmids encoding mouse and human betatrophin, fused with a Myc tag at the C-terminus (referred to as mbetatrophin-Myc and hbetatrophin-Myc), were prepared and used to transfect tissue culture cells and to express betatrophin in mouse liver by hydrodynamic tail veil injection (Song et al., 2002; Yant et al., 2000; Zhang et al., 1999). Ectopic gene expression in the cell line Hepa1-6, and in liver cells in vivo, show Myc- tagged betatrophin protein in vesicle-like structures as expected for a secreted protein (mouse Figure 4B, D and human Figure 4C, E). Myc-tagged betatrophin protein is detected in the supernatant of transfected of 293T cells as well as plasma from mice injected with the expression plasmids (mouse Figure 4F, H and human Figure 4G, I). Betatrophin can be detected in human plasma, demonstrating that endogenous betatrophin is a secreted protein in vivo (Figure 4J).

Expression of betatrophin in liver induces dramatic and specific pancreatic β cell proliferation and improves glucose tolerance in mice

To determine whether betatrophin can promote pancreatic β cell proliferation, we used hydrodynamic injection to deliver betatrophin expression constructs to the liver, one of the normal sites of betatrophin expression. Following injection, 5–10% of liver cells expressed betatrophin (or the control protein, GFP, Figure S5) and this expression persisted for at least 8 days (data not shown). Injection of plasmids encoding betatrophin produces a striking increase in β cell replication (Figure 5A). The β cell proliferation rate in betatrophin injected animals averaged 4.6%, 17 fold higher than the control (GFP injected) rate of 0.27% (Figure 5B), with some individual animals achieving replication rates as high as 8.8% (~33 fold increase). The increased proliferation in β cells in betatrophin injected animals was confirmed by immunostaining for the β cell nuclear marker Nkx6.1 and another cell division marker (PCNA, Figure S2C and S2D). Similar to S961 treated mice, quantitative PCR analysis also shows that the expression level of Cyclins (Cyclin A1, A2, B1, B2, D1, D2 and F), CDKs (CDK1 and CDK2), and E2Fs (E2F1 ad E2F2) increase whereas cell cycle inhibitors (Cdkn1a and Cdkn2a) decrease in islets of betatrophin injected mice compared to control injected mice (Figure S3E). The increase in β cell proliferation was observed in all islets examined (Figure S3F). The increased rate of proliferation is so dramatic that one can easily identify islets and β cells at low magnification simply by the immunostaining for replication (Ki67; Figure 5C).

Figure 5
Overexpression of betatrophin in the liver leads to a specific pancreatic β cell proliferation

The high β cell proliferation rate in betatrophin injected mice leads to a significant expansion of β cell numbers and total pancreatic β cell mass (Figure 5D). After 8 days, the total pancreatic β cell area in betatrophin injected mice is 3 fold higher than in control injected mice (Figure 5E). This increase is the result of having more β cells which in turn increases islet size (Figure S3G). The total pancreatic insulin content also increases (~2 fold) in betatrophin injected mice (Figure 5F).

The stimulation in replication caused by betatrophin expression is largely specific for β cells. As shown in Figure 5C and 5G, there is little if any effect on replication in other pancreatic cell types (exocrine, ductal and non-β-cell endocrine cells) or other organs (liver, white fat and brown fat) (Figure 5G).

To evaluate β cell function, we isolated pancreatic islets from control or betatrophin injected mice and performed a glucose-stimulated-insulin-secretion (GSIS) analysis. As shown in Figure S6, the GSIS of pancreatic islets from betatrophin injected mice is indistinguishable from control GFP injected mice, suggesting that the normal function of β cells was maintained after the β cell proliferation in betatrophin injected animals. In addition, a glucose tolerance test was performed in control or betatrophin injected mice. Mice were fasted for 6 hours before glucose injection, and the data show that betatrophin injected mice have a lower fasting glucose level (Figure 6A) and improved glucose tolerance compared to control injected mice (Figure 6A and as shown by Area Under Curve (AUC), Figure 6B). Betatrophin expression also results in a minor increase in fasting plasma insulin levels (Figure 6C), possibly due to the relative short fasting time or an increased glucose sensitivity.

Figure 6
Overexpression of betatrophin in the liver leads to improved β cell function

Because insulin resistance is a potent stimulus known to induce β cell proliferation, it is formally possible that betatrophin may act by first inducing insulin resistance, which in turn leads to compensatory β cell proliferation by some other mechanism. This possibility seems unlikely since the lower fasting glucose in mice over-expressing betatrophin is inconsistent with an insulin resistant phenotype. Nonetheless, to rule out this possibility, we performed an insulin tolerance test, and found no difference between betatrophin and control injected mice, in contrast to S961 administration (10nMol/week) which produces a strong insulin resistance (Figure 6D). These data show that betatrophin promotes β-cells replication without insulin resistance.


The possibility that the liver produces a signal for β cell proliferation has been suggested before, perhaps most convincingly by Kahn’s work on the LIRKO mouse, a liver specific depletion of the insulin receptor that produces β cell hyperplasia (Michael et al., 2000). Here, using a different method, we show that an insulin receptor antagonist (S961) provides a chemical means of achieving this same phenotype. In a dose dependent manner, provision of S961 induces a rapid and significant increase in β cell replication and islet growth.

The S961 insulin resistance model enabled us to identify betatrophin. There are three recent reports where the Gm6484/TD26 gene was identified as a liver and fat enriched gene. Those authors pointed to a possible lipoprotein lipase inhibition activity or an effect on serum triglyceride regulation (Quagliarini, 2012; Ren et al., 2012; Zhang, 2012), but did not report any effects on pancreatic β cell biology, carbohydrate metabolism or diabetes. Our findings on betatrophin suggest that this hormone can regulate metabolism by increasing insulin production via an increase in β cell mass.

The upregulation of betatrophin observed during pregnancy and in the ob/ob and db/db diabetic mouse models, may explain how β cell proliferation and β cell mass is expanded in those instances. In other genetic manipulations that increase β cell replication, such as LIRKO and MEK1 mutations (Imai et al., 2008; Michael et al., 2000), it remains to be determined whether betatrophin is similarly upregulated.

The stimulation of β cell replication we report with S961 and following injection of betatrophin DNA is noteworthy for the rapidity and magnitude of the effect. β cell replication rate is elevated 4 fold during gestation (Karnik et al., 2007), 2–4.5 fold with high glucose infusion (Alonso et al., 2007), 2.6 fold from exendin-4 treatment (Xu et al., 1999), 4 fold in a β cell ablation model (Nir et al., 2007), and 6 fold in LIRKO mice (Okada et al., 2007). S961 treatment can increase β cell replication by 12 fold and providing betatrophin by DNA injection increased replication by an average of 17 fold within a few days making this an exceptionally potent activity. Together these results point to the importance of making recombinant betatrophin protein and testing it directly by injection for effects on β cell mass.

We do not yet know the mechanism of action for betatrophin. It may act directly or indirectly on β cells to control their proliferation. Identification of the betatrophin receptor and/or other possible co-factors will help explain how the liver and fat interact with the pancreas to regulate β cell mass. Nonetheless, identification of betatrophin as a hormone that can exert control on β cell replication and β cell mass opens a new door to possible diabetes therapy.

Experimental Procedures

Reagents and mice

C57BL/6J, ob/ob and db/db male mice at 8 weeks of age were purchased from Jackson Laboratory. C57BL/6J female mice at 8 weeks of age were obtained from Jackson Laboratory, fertilized and timed to certain gestational dates in house. For hydrodynamic tail vein injection, ICR male mice at 7 weeks of age were purchased from Taconic. The Hepa1-6 cell line was obtained from ATCC. To make expression plasmids for the GFP control or betatrophin, cDNAs were amplified using PCR from a GFP expression plasmid or mouse/human liver total RNA, and subcloned into pT3-EF1α-DEST vector (a sleeping beauty transposon vector) or pCAG-DEST vector. mbetatrophin is mouse and hbetatrophin is the human gene. pT3-EF1α-DEST and the transposase encoding plasmd pCMV-SB100 were gifts from Dr. Aaron Tward. Human RNA, protein and plasma samples were purchased from BioChain.

S961 treatment

S961 was received as a generous gift from Dr. Lauge Schäffer (Novo Nordisk). (Schaffer et al., 2008). Vehicle (PBS) or 2.5nMol–10nMol S961 was loaded into Alzet osmotic pump 2001 and implanted subcutaneously on the back of mice.

Total insulin content measurement

To measure total insulin content, whole pancreata were dissected and processed according to a standard acid-ethanol extraction protocol. The insulin concentration of the extracts was determined using Mouse Ultrasensitive Insulin ELISA Jumbo (ALPCO). The total protein concentration was measured using a protein assay kit from Bio-Rad.

In vitro glucose stimulated insulin secretion analysis (GSIS)

Pancreatic islets were isolated after infusion and digestion of the pancreata by collagenase P (Roche). The islets were cultured overnight to recover in RPMI1640+10% FBS media. About 20 size-matched islets from each mouse were used for the in vitro GSIS assay. After fasting the islets in low glucose buffer (2.5mM) for 2 hours, islets were washed and sequentially incubated with 400μl of low glucose buffer (2.5mM), high glucose glucose buffer (15mM) and then low glucose buffer (2.5mM) with 30mM KCl. These buffers were collected after incubation and analyzed using the Mouse Ultrasensitive Insulin ELISA Jumbo (ALPCO). Total genomic DNA was extracted from all islets after the GSIS using DNeasy blood and tissue kit (Qiagen) and the concentration of the genomic DNA was measured using a nanodrop. The insulin content measurement for each sample was normalized to the total genome DNA content.


Mouse pancreata, liver and brown fat were fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde for 2 h at 4 °C. The white fat was fixed overnight. Cryosections (10μm–20μm) were pretreated with citrate buffer for antigen retrieval according to standard protocols and were immunostained with Guinea pig anti-insulin antibody (Dako), mouse anti Nkx6.1 antibody (DHSB), rabbit anti-Amylase antibody (Sigma), rabbit anti-CK19 antibody (Abcam), rabbit anti-pancreatic polypeptide antibody (Abcam), rabbit anti-glucagon antibody (Cell Signaling), goat anti-somatostatin antibody (Santa Cruz) and/or Rat anti-Ki67 antibody (Dako), Rabbit anti-Ki67 antibody (Abcam), mouse anti-PCNA (Abcam) and subsequently developed by Alexa Fluor 488 goat anti-guinea pig IgG (H+L), Alexa Fluor 488 donkey anti-rabbit IgG (H+L), Alexa Fluor 488 donkey anti-goat IgG (H+L), and/or Alexa Fluor 594 donkey anti-rat IgG (H+L), Alexa Fluor 594 donkey anti-rabbit IgG (H+L), Alexa Fluor 594 donkey anti-mouse IgG (H+L) (Invitrogen). For DAB staining of the pancreatic β cells, Guinea pig anti-insulin antibody (Dako) and HRP conjugated Donkey anti-Guinea pig antibody (Jackson ImmunoResearch) were used and developed by ImmPACT DAB kit (Vector Laboratories). For immunocytochemistry in Hepa1-6 cells and immunofluorescence of m/hbetatrophin-Myc in liver after hydrodynamic tail vein injection, cells or tissue cryosections were stained by Rabbit anti-Myc tag antibody (Abcam) and developed by Alexa Fluor 594 Donkey Anti-Rabbit IgG (H+L). All cells and sections were mounted in Vectorshield with DAPI (Vector Laboratories). Images were obtained using Zeiss LSM510 confocal microscope, Olympus IX51 microscope or Leica MZ16FA microscope.

Quantifying pancreatic β cell proliferation, islet size, mass (area), non-β cells proliferation and average β cell size

Whole mouse pancreata were fixed and cryosectioned throughout. A series of sections 300μm apart were chosen for each set of experiments. For β cells proliferation assays, sections were immunostained with anti-insulin and anti-Ki67 antibody. For non-β cells pancreatic cells proliferation, sections were immunostained with anti-amylase, anti-CK19, anti-somatostatin, anti-glucagon, anti-pancreatic polypeptide together with anti-Ki67 antibody. Liver, white fat and brown fat sections were immunostained with anti-Ki67 antibody. All islets were imaged, and total β cell number was counted by counting nuclei surrounded by cytoplasmic insulin immunostaining and the proliferating β cells were assessed by counting nuclei stained with Ki67 within cytoplasmic insulin immonostaining. For each mouse, about 10,000 β cells were counted and the β cell proliferation ratio was calculated by dividing Ki67+ cell number by total β cell number. The non-β-cells pancreatic cells and liver/fat cells proliferation rates were counted in the similar manner. For islet size and β cell area quantification, the whole area for all sections was imaged. The total pancreas area and insulin positive area were selected using Adobe Photoshop for each image. The total insulin positive (β cell) area and the average islet size (calculated from individual islet areas) were calculated from these data for each mouse. The average β cell size was calculated by dividing the total β cell area (insulin+ area) by the total β cell number from all imaged islets.

Microarray and Real-time PCR analysis

β cells were purified from pancreata of Pdx1-GFP transgenic mice after infusion and digestion by collagenase P (Roche) by FACS. Total RNA from various organs/tissues/cells was extracted using TRIzol (Invitrogen) and genomic DNA was removed using Qiagen RNeasy kit. For microarray analysis, total RNA was amplified and biotin labeled using Illumina TotalPrep RNA Amplification kit (Ambion). The cRNA was analyzed by in house Illumina BeadArray Reader and quantified using Illumina BeadStudio. For Real-time PCR analysis, cDNA was synthesized using Superscript III First Strand cDNA synthesis kit (Invitrogen), and analyzed using an ABI 7900 system. The Taqman gene expression assays used were mbetatrophin (Mm01175863_g1, Applied Biosystem), mActb (Mm00607939_s1, Applied Biosystem) and hbetatrophin (Hs00218820_m1).

Microarray data were deposited in the Gene Expression Omnibus Database of the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, under the accession number GSE45694.

Cell cycle genes and transcript profiling

Pancreatic islets were isolated after infusion and digestion of the pancreata by collagenase P (Roche). The total RNA was immediately isolated from islets using an RNeasy mini kit (Qiagen). The cDNA was synthesized using RT2 First Strand Kit (Qiagen) and quantitative PCR reactions were performed using RT2 Profiler PCR Array Mouse Cell Cycle (Qiagen).

DNA transfection and Western blotting

293T cell were transfected with GFP or betatrophin expression plasmids using Lipofectamine 2000 Transfection Reagent (Invitrogen). Supernatants were collected, filtered through 0.22μm membrane and concentrated 10 times using Amicon Ultra Centrifugation Filter with 10kDa cutoff (Millipore). The cell lysate was prepared using RIPA buffer (Santa Cruz) with protease inhibitors. The liver lysate was prepared by homogenization in RIPA buffer with protease inhibitors. For western blotting, the primary antibodies used include Rabbit anti-Myc-HRP antibody (Abcam), chicken anti-GFP antibody (Aves Lab, Inc.), Rabbit anti GAPDH antibody (Abcam) and Mouse anti-TD26 antibody (Novus). The secondary antibody used include HRP conjugated Goat Anti-Rabbit IgG (H+L) (Jackson ImmunoResearch), HRP conjugated Donkey Anti-mouse IgG (H+L) (Jackson ImmunoResearch) and HRP conjugated Donkey Anti-Chiken IgY (H+L) (Jackson ImmunoResearch). The signal was developed using SuperSignal West Pico Chemiluminescent Substrate (Pierce).

Hydrodynamic tail vein injection

7 week old male ICR mice (Taconic) were used for the hydrodynamic tail vein injection for the ease of identifying the tail vein. The injections were performed according to published methods (Liu et al., 1999; Song et al., 2002; Yant et al., 2000; Zhang et al., 1999). 100μg of GFP or betatrophin expression plasmid DNA, controlled by either the CAG promoter or the EF1α promoter in the sleeping beauty transposon backbone together with 4μg of sleeping beauty transposase expression plasmid (pCMV-SB100), were diluted in sterile saline. The mice were anesthetized using avertin (250mg/Kg) and injected with 8% of body weight volumes (ml/g) of diluted plasmid DNA within 5–7 seconds through the lateral tail veins. Glucose tolerance tests or insulin tolerance test were performed 6 days after injection and the mice were sacrificed 8 days after injection for pancreatic β cell analysis.

Glucose tolerance test and insulin tolerance test

Mice were fasted for 6 hours and then injected with 1mg/g body weight of D-Glucose intraperitoneally (IP). The blood glucose was measured from the tail tip using One Touch Ultra 2 blood glucose meter (LifeScan, Inc.) at 0, 15, 30, 60, 90 minutes post injection. The Area Under Curve (AUC) is calculated using standard methods. For insulin tolerance tests, mice were not fasted and were injected with 0.75U/Kg of human insulin (Sigma) intraperitoneally (IP). The blood glucose was measured from the tail tip using One Touch Ultra 2 blood glucose meter (LifeScan, Inc.) at 0, 30 and 60 minutes post injection.

Insulin ELISA

Blood was collected after mice were sacrificed and the plasma was separated according to standard protocols. Insulin ELISA assay was carried out with Mouse Ultrasensitive Insulin ELISA Jumbo (ALPCO).


All the p values were calculated by a standard student’s t-test with two-tails distribution.


  1. Betatrophin causes a specific increase in pancreatic beta cell replication
  2. Betatrophin is a secreted protein expressed in liver and fat
  3. Betatrophin appears to be a novel mammalian protein
  4. The increase in beta cell replication and mass improves glycemic control

Supplementary Material



We thank Lauge Schaffer and Aaron Tward for sharing reagents. P.Y. was supported by a fellowship from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. D.A.M is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This work was supported by grants from the NIH (RC4DK090781) and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. D.A.M. and P.Y. are inventors of a U.S. Patent Application based on this work. We thank Dena Cohen, Sinisa Hrvatin, Ornella Barrandon and Peter Carolan for comments on the manuscript.


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