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Could pig cells reverse diabetes?

A team in the US has reversed diabetes in monkeys by transplanting cell clusters - known as islets - from pig pancreases, a study in Nature Medicine reports.

In previous research UK teams have transplanted human pancreas cells, meaning people receiving the operation haven’t needed to continue injecting insulin. However, donated organs are in short supply, hence the interest in the pig solution.

The scientists from the University of Minnesota hopes to start trials in humans by 2009. The university's researchers argue that animal-to-human transplants may be necessary to make islet transplantation a viable solution for the tens of thousands of people who have the condition.

To overcome rejection of the pig cells, which has been a problem in the past with work such as this, the team worked to perfect a combination of drugs. With the final drugs regime, all five monkey transplant recipients survived and their diabetes was reversed.

Jo Brodie, islet project coordinator at Diabetes UK, said:

"A major limiting factor in the use of either whole pancreas or islet cell transplantation is the lack of available donor organs. This research offers the potential for a new source of islet cells without the need for patients to be given anti-rejection drugs which have serious side effects.

"This research may have huge future potential in the treatment of people with Type 1 diabetes, but a great deal more work is needed. Also, serious ethical issues still need addressing as xenotransplantations are not currently undertaken in the UK."

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