Scientific breakthrough could speed up islet cell transplants for diabetics

by Barbara Hewitt on September 3, 2013

islet cell transplants for diabetics

Since 2008, over 90 islet transplants have been successfully carried out in the UK

A breakthrough by scientists in Scotland means that diabetic patients could benefit from the ability to take cells from the pancreas and change their function to produce insulin.

The research could also reduce waiting times for patients with type 1 Diabetes who need islet cell transplants which are carried out to prevent life threatening complications such as seizures resulting from low blood sugar levels.

These seizures can be fatal as patients have no warning signals that their blood sugar has reached dangerously low levels. It is estimated that almost 20% of people with type 1 diabetes suffer from this kind of hypoglycemic unawareness.

The breakthrough involves islet cells that occur naturally in the pancreas and produce insulin which enables the body to store glucose. But not enough of these cells can be provided by a single donor for a successful islet transplant to take place. This means that patients can wait months before a second pancreas becomes available so that a sufficient number of islet cells to be transplanted.

Now the work carried out by the University of Aberdeen, the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, could enable pancreatic cells rather than islets to be developed in the laboratory for transplant operations.

It could mean that only one pancreas donation would be needed to enable the successful transplantation of insulin producing cells and save months of waiting for a second donor to become available as well as make more organs available for other patients. It would involve an islet cell transplant once an organ becomes available, followed by a second transplant soon after when enough pancreatic cells have been developed to produce insulin.

‘There is a shortage of organ donors, which is not helped by the need for two pancreases to be donated to treat each patient. Developing previously unusable cells to produce insulin means that fewer donors would be needed, which would make a huge difference to patients waiting for transplants operations,’ said John Casey, University honourary senior lecturer and lead clinician for the National Islet Transplant Programme in Scotland.

The scientists, who carried out their study on mice, believe that the effects of the operations would also be longer lasting than currently as more cells would be transplanted. They took islet cells from the pancreas and were able to reprogramme them using cell cultures. The cells were then tested in diabetic mice and were found to secrete insulin and normalise blood glucose levels.

‘This is an example of how reprogramming, the ability to change one cell type into another, can have a huge impact on the development of cell-based therapy for diabetes and many other diseases,’ said professor Kevin Docherty of the University of Aberdeen.

An islet cell transplant programme was introduced in the UK in 2008. Since then, over 90 islet transplants have been successfully carried out in the UK with some patients now completely free of insulin injections.

‘Any work which moves us a step closer to even more successful islet cell transplants that are available more widely is a step in the right direction. However, more research is needed. For now, the best way to ensure that as many people with type 1 diabetes as possible can benefit from islet cell transplants is for more people to sign up as donors,’ said Dr Matthew Hobbs, head of research for Diabetes UK.

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

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ivan May 30, 2017 at 10:37 am

When is this going to start happening? This article is 4.5 years old.


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