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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 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.

But because the newly minted insulin-secreting cells are derived from a type of non-specialized cell found only in the earliest stages of embryonic development, a human version of the treatment would face stiff opposition from the political and religious right, who oppose medical research using cells derived from human embryos.

In 2001, the Bush administration announced a ban on research using cells derived from newly-created embryos (such as those discarded daily by fertility clinics), restricting scientists to working with currently available stem-cell lines; stem cell researchers said the decision cripples their ability to do meaningful research, and could delay the development of life-saving treatments -- like those for diabetes -- by years or even decades.

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Reviewed on June 18, 2004

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