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Islet-Cell Transplants: Stop Diabetes?

Transplanted Cells Help Prevent Life-Threatening Blood-Sugar Crashes
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 27, 2006 -- Islet-cell transplants aren't -- yet -- a cure for diabetes, an international clinical trial shows.

The trial tested the Edmonton protocol, a revolutionary technique for transplanting insulin-making pancreas cells from cadavers to desperately ill diabetes patients. A few years ago, it seemed that the technique -- in which islet cells are infused into the liver -- could free most patients from the need for insulin shots.

It does, find Edmonton protocol inventor James Shapiro, MD, PhD, and colleagues. But now it's clear that only some 10% of study patients remained insulin-free after five years. Even so, the transplanted cells kept many of the patients from having life-threatening blood-sugar crashes.

This means that the hunt for a diabetes cure isn't over. But researchers are on the right trail, says study researcher Camillo Ricordi, MD, chief of cellular transplantation and scientific director of diabetes research at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

"The drawback right now is that virtually all patients show slow deterioration of islet function over several years," Ricordi tells WebMD. "We will have to develop strategies to educate the recipient's immune system to tolerate the islet cells. When we do this, we can treat all type 1 diabetes patients -- and also type 2 diabetes patients who are dependent on insulin."

The study appears in the Sept. 28 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Making the Liver Work as a Pancreas

Shapiro, Ricordi, and colleagues carefully screened some 2,000 desperately ill type 1 diabetes patients at nine diabetes centers in the U.S. and Europe. They picked only 36 subjects -- all adults (average age, 41), all with long-term diabetes (27 years on average), and all failing to get control of their blood sugar with insulin injections.

The patients received insulin-making islet cells from brain-dead organ donors. The carefully prepared islet cells were infused into the patients' livers -- where, it was hoped, the cells would survive and multiply. All patients received immune-suppressing drugs to prevent rejection of the transplanted cells. These drugs were carefully selected to minimize their toxic effects on the transplanted cells.

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