- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008


LONDON — Thousands of diabetics will be given hope of a cure by a groundbreaking transplant program about to be introduced in Britain.

Clinical trials of an injection of insulin-creating cells taken from a donor have been so successful the government has agreed to fund a $14 million national program to offer it more widely.

More than a dozen patients with unstable Type 1 diabetes have undergone transplants of pancreas cells and some have been completely “cured” of the condition and no longer need to take insulin.

Others have improved so much they no longer have life-threatening seizures when their blood sugar crashes and they can fall into a coma and die.

Type 1 diabetes can be caused by an infection or a defect in the immune system that causes the body to destroy its own insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Sufferers must inject themselves with the hormone daily.

It is different from Type 2 diabetes, which is usually triggered by obesity and can often be controlled with diet.

Up to one in four persons with Type 1 diabetes have few or no symptoms before an imminent attack, meaning they cannot take action to prevent it.

Dr. Martin Press, from the Royal Free Hospital, said that in the past two years, two of his patients have died from their condition when a transplant might have prevented their fatal attack.

Paul Johnson, the director of the Oxford islet-transplant program based at Oxford University, said: “The funding from the Department of Health is excellent news for people with life-threatening diabetes. These patients live with a daily fear of having a dangerous … attack and this treatment will offer them the chance to have a normal life again.

“The ultimate aim is to eventually be able to reverse diabetes in children soon after diagnosis, preventing them from getting these life-threatening complications, but further research is needed first.”

The teams at Oxford, King’s College Hospital and the Royal Free in London will isolate and harvest the cells from the donor organs and offer the transplants to about 20 patients in the first year.

The cells — known as islet cells — are taken from the pancreas of a dead organ donor and grown in a laboratory for two days. More than 300,000 cells are needed for a successful transplant, and patients can have up to two transplants. The cells are injected into the liver, where they start to produce insulin.

The only other option for many for these patients is a transplant of the whole pancreas, but complications can be life-threatening.

Patients will have to take immuno-suppressant drugs for the rest of their lives, which can increase the risk of infections and even cancer, so only the most serious cases will be considered for transplants.

The Department of Health will invest up to $5 million in islet-transplant services in the first year, increasing to $14 million a year.

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