Skip to content

Diabetes Health Center

Font Size

Islet Cell Transplant: Still Promising?

This experimental pancreas procedure might eliminate the need for insulin injections in some people with diabetes. But it isn't easy, so other islet-cell alternatives are being researched.

Islet-cell Transplants continued...

"The process of harvesting the pancreas, isolating the cells, and then transplanting them all in one day is pretty tough, especially when you also take into account the situation that you might actually spend that entire day trying to isolate cells and never come up with enough cells from that procedure," says Emmanuel Opara, PhD, associate research professor in the department of experimental surgery and assistant research professor in the department of cell biology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Opara and colleagues are looking at alternatives to human islet cells, including the use of islets taken from pig pancreases. Although the use of animal organs in humans is controversial, insulin derived from pig and cow pancreases has been in use since the early 1920s, when commercial insulin production began; the use of human insulin is a relatively recent development.

Pig islet cells are very similar in nature and function to human islets, but because they come from an animal they are seen as foreign invaders by the patient's immune system, which sends out specialized cells to hunt them down, tag them for removal, and kill them.

To get around this problem, Opara and colleagues at Duke have developed special drug-delivery spheres made up of a complex carbohydrate called alginate. The spheres surround, or "encapsulate" the islet cells, and are reported to be porous enough to let blood sugar come in and insulin go out while protecting the islet cells from immune-system act. The spheres are a little like the arrow slits used by archers defending ancient castles.

The Duke researchers are also investigating methods for freezing harvested islet cells. "One of the things I've been doing is to design procedures that will enable us to store these cells in a very viable state, so that when you require them you will approximate the situation of going to a doctor to get a prescription [for islet cells] and then going to the pharmacy to pick them up," Opara tells WebMD.

In addition to building islet-cell reserves, the technique has the beneficial side effect of making the cells less offensive to the immune system, thereby helping them to survive longer when transplanted into a patient with type 1 diabetes, Opara says.

Islet Sheets, Viruses, and Stem Cells

Other research teams are working on sheets of islet cells that are surrounded by a porous plastic; the resulting sheets could theoretically act as bio-artificial pancreases. Still others are experimenting with viruses that could make beta-islet cell transplants more acceptable to the immune system, in a form of biological "stealth" technology.

And as reported by WebMD in 2001, researchers at the National Institutes of Health are working to develop a new method for restoring insulin production by coaxing embryonic stem cells into becoming beta-islet cells specialized type of insulin-producing cell. If the technique works in humans, it could represent a major breakthrough in the treatment of diabetes and could even replace injected insulin, report researchers in the April 26 issue of the journal Science.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Check Your Blood Sugar Level Now
What type of diabetes do you have?
Your gender:

Get the latest Diabetes newsletter delivered to your inbox!


Your level is currently

If the level is below 70 or you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Did You Know Your Lifestyle Choices
Affect Your Blood Sugar?

Use the Blood Glucose Tracker to monitor
how well you manage your blood sugar over time.

Get Started

This tool is not intended for women who are pregnant.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

Diabetic tools
Symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and more.
woman flexing muscles
10 strength training exercises.
Blood sugar test
12 practical tips.
Tom Hanks
Stars living with type 1 or type 2.
Woman serving fast food from window
Can Vinegar Treat Diabetes
Middle aged person
are battery operated toothbrushes really better

Prediabetes How to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes
type 2 diabetes
food fitness planner
Are You at Risk for Dupuytrens Contracture