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Research spotlight – islet transplants

Diabetes UK has a long history of supporting islet transplants and islet transplant research in the UK.

We are excited to be supporting several research projects could help us to learn more about islet transplants and increase their impact even further.

How do islet transplants work?

Islet transplant surgery
Islet transplant surgery

Islet cell transplantation involves extracting insulin producing islet cells from the pancreas of a deceased donor and implanting them in the liver of someone with Type 1 diabetes.

The procedure can be performed with minimal risk using a needle under local anaesthetic and is usually performed twice for each patient.

For people with Type 1 diabetes who experience more than one severe hypo each year, an islet transplant can be highly beneficial and perhaps help them to regain control of their diabetes.

Transplants can change lives

Type 1 diabetes results from the destruction of insulin-producing cells in the islets of the pancreas. Islet transplants have been shown to reduce the risk of severe hypos and usually also lead to improved awareness of hypoglycaemia, less variability in blood glucose levels, improved average blood glucose, improved quality of life and reduced fear of hypos.

Current projects

Diabetes UK has been instrumental in the development of a successful islet transplant programme in the UK. Our supporters raised £650,000 between 2001 and 2005, which paid for the UK’s first fifteen islet transplants and now we are supporting research to make islet transplants even better.

Islet transplants and liver regeneration

Dr Shareen Forbes at University of Edinburgh

Currently islet transplantation is not an efficient process with pancreases from two donors required for a single transplantation of islets into the recipient’s liver. Unfortunately, during this process sixty per cent of islets are lost. Earlier research has suggested that removing a part of the liver helps both with liver regeneration and successful integration of islets. However, damaging someone’s liver to carry out a transplant is not acceptable.

Dr Forbes is investigating alternative ways of promoting liver regeneration and integration of transplanted islets. She has discovered that adding specific hormones and growth factors may encourage the liver to take in transplanted islets better. This project, if successful, could directly contribute to more people undergoing successful islet transplants.

A new approach to islet transplant

Professor James Shaw at Newcastle University

Islet transplants are currently used to improve diabetes management and to restore the lost hypo awareness in people with Type 1 diabetes. However, the transplanted cells stop working over time and follow-up transplants become necessary. Professor Shaw is looking at a new approach, which has the potential to prolong the life of transplanted islets.

Since islet cells need a constant supply of blood and oxygen, Professor Shaw is investigating a technique where islets are transplanted together with cells called endothelial progenitor cells. He is hoping these cells will encourage new blood vessels to grow around the newly transplanted islets, providing them with oxygen and improving their survival. This project is still at an early stage, but if the approach is tested in humans and proves successful, it may replace the current islet transplant technique.

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