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Helping transplanted beta cells to survive

Project summary

Islet cell transplants for people with type 1 diabetes and severe hypos can be life-changing. But a lot of islet cells die soon after transplant, limiting the success of the treatment. Dr Caton plans to block a protein called NAMPT to see if this can improve the survival of cells after transplant. In the future, this can make islet transplants more effective and more accessible.  

Background to research

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body attacks its own beta cells in the pancreas. These beta cells make insulin and form small clusters known as islets. 

People with type 1 diabetes inject insulin to control their blood sugar levels. But too much insulin can cause low blood sugar levels known as hypos. Some people lose the feelings that tell them when they’re blood sugar levels are dangerously low, such as having wobbly legs, sweating and anxiety. This can lead to life-threatening severe hypos. It’s at this point that an islet transplant could be a life-saving treatment. 

In an islet transplant, cells from a donor pancreas are given to someone with type 1 diabetes to replace their lost beta cells with healthy new ones. But one of the problems is that these new cells often die soon after the transplant so the treatment isn’t as successful as it could be.   

Dr Caton’s already done some research into this. He’s shown that blocking the action of a protein call NAMPT means the islet cells can survive longer and work better after being transplanted. 

Research aims

Dr Caton now aims to get an even better understanding of NAMPT and its effects on transplanted cells.  

First of all he’ll see if blocking NAMPT can stop the cells dying in human islets in the lab. He’ll then study whether blocking NAMPT can improve the survival of islets transplanted into mice with diabetes. He’ll also research when is best to give the treatment, either before transplantation or at the same time as transplantation. 

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Each year, about 1 in 3 people with type 1 diabetes experience a severe hypo. People with type 1 diabetes who’ve had at least two severe hypos within the last two years, and can’t tell when they’re having a hypo, may benefit from an islet cell transplant. 

A transplant would be a lot more successful if Dr Caton can improve the survival of the cells. And in the future, if fewer islets are needed for each transplantation there’d be more to go round. This could mean more people with type 1 diabetes could be treated in this way and benefit from needing to take less insulin and having better control of blood sugar levels.  


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