BACKGROUND: A new experimental transplant procedure has been shown to successfully treat Type I diabetes in at least one patient, relieving that patient of the need to take daily insulin injections.
THE PROBLEM: Type I diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. Diabetes sufferers must inject insulin every day, or their blood sugar levels can rise out of control. Insulin is a chemical substance in the body (technically a hormone) that is needed to regular blood sugar levels. It also helps the body use fat and protein.
THE SOLUTION: Islets are cell clusters in the pancreas that control the release of insulin as needed to maintain normal levels of blood sugar in the body. Before the transplant, islet cells are collected from a donor pancreas. A catheter is inserted into the patient's abdomen and threaded into the portal vein, which carries blood to the liver. Then a teaspoonful of islet cells is injected through the catheter. The patient is conscious but anesthetized during the procedure, and can usually return home within a day or two. More than one transfusion of islet cells may be needed, and the patient must remain on immune-suppressant therapy for life to prevent the transplanted tissue from being rejected by the body. Immunosuppressive drugs can have severe potential side effects, so the procedure is not appropriate for the vast majority of diabetic patients.
WHERE TO FIND IT: Only a few medical centers in the world currently offer this procedure, which is experimental and performed as clinical research. Ten of those centers are located in the U.S., and include Carolinas Medical Center. See www.carolinas.org.
ABOUT TYPE I DIABETES: This is known as an autoimmune disease, because the body destroys its own cells: those that produce insulin. When all those cells have been destroyed, the symptoms of Type I diabetes appear. These include unexplained weight loss; vision problems; more frequent urination; and feeling very hungry, thirsty or tired. Among other long-term complications, Type I diabetes means there is an increased risk of kidney failure, nerve damage, heart disease and blindness.
The Biophysical Society contributed to the contents of this report.