Pioneering insulin cell transplants helping type 1 diabetics with debilitating hypos

by Barbara Hewitt on July 15, 2013

Pioneering insulin cell transplants helping type 1 diabetics with debilitating hypo

Pioneering insulin cell transplants helping type 1 diabetics with debilitating hypo

People with type 1 diabetes who have been unable to drive due to the condition being debilitating are getting their independence back thanks to a pioneering transplant programme. The Islet Transplantation Programme in Scotland which started in February 2011 has so far helped 15 patients by giving them an infusion of cells from a donor pancreas to help them produce insulin again.

Dr Shareen Forbes, head of the programme, one of seven being run in the UK, said there should be more awareness of the procedure among doctors and the public and more pancreas donations are needed. Insulin producing cells known as islets are extracted from a deceased donor’s pancreas and are then prepared in the laboratory before they are injected into the diabetic patient’s liver in a simple, minimally invasive procedure.

Once in the body, they help the patient produce insulin again, reducing the need for injections. In some cases, patients have stopped using insulin all together. It is particularly useful for those who may suffer a server hypoglycaemic attack which leads to dizziness, fatigue, blurred vision and even unconsciousness. In the most severe cases it can lead to convulsions and coma and those suffering severe attacks have their driving licence taken away.

However, since the islet transplant programme was launched, many are now in a position to reapply for their licences. Some of the patients had horrendous stories of becoming unconscious at the wheel and driving into a lamp post. One patient went round and round a roundabout about 20 times before the police intervened. Many patients, having been made more aware of when their blood sugar levels are falling, are now in the process of getting their licences back. Many have also become able to return to full time work, which was previously impossible due to their debilitating attacks.

Quote from DiabetesForum.com : “It seems every week we see a different angle, a different suggestion and a different idea with regards to the treatment and a potential cure for diabetes. While transplants are not necessarily a new phenomenon in this particular field it was interesting to see that the UK authorities have carried out yet another pancreatic cell transplant.”

Simon O’Neill of charity Diabetes UK, said it is good news that these patients can finally get their licences back. ‘Obviously, if they are still taking any insulin even in small doses then they should follow the same recommendations as anyone else, which means if they have not had two serious hypoglycaemic attacks in the past 12 months then they should be fine to drive,’ he explained.

Forbes believes many more could benefit. ‘I am sure this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are about 30,000 people with type 1 diabetes in Scotland. Probably about 10% of them have severely impaired awareness of hypoglycaemia which is the main indication for islet transplantation. So that is 3,000 people probably who may potentially benefit from islet transplantation,’ she explained.

Paul Orr, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of eight, a father of four, had to give back his driving licence two and a half years ago. He was suffering a dozen hypos a day and was unaware when they were going to happen. Now, after two successful islet transplants, he has been told that he can reapply for his licence. He said the transplants have changed his life and he is now aware when his blood sugar drops and only has to use small amounts of insulin.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the DiabetesForum.com Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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