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Research on a cure for type 1 diabetes

To find a cure for people living with type 1 diabetes, we need to find a way to help people produce their own insulin.   

One solution is islet cell transplants. So, we’ve invested around £2.2 million in the last 10 years.  

What are islet cell transplants?   

  • Scientists remove clusters of insulin-making beta cells, called islets, from a donor pancreas  
  • Donor cells are transplanted into someone with type 1 diabetes
  • Donated beta cells start producing insulin
  • This allows people to temporarily make enough of their own to reduce or stop insulin injections, have steadier blood sugar levels, fewer severe hypos and regain hypo awareness.  

In 1989, Diabetes UK scientists, led by Dr Roger James and Dr Stephen Lake, developed a way to collect islets for transplant. Their method is still regarded as the gold standard today.  

Soon after, we launched the UK Islet Transplant Consortium to bring together leading researchers to make sure islet transplants are available to those who could benefit the most.   

In 2005, we then funded teams at King’s College London, the Royal Free Hospital and Oxford to carry out the UK’s first 12 islet transplants.  

Our research then established that islets could successfully be moved around the UK, to reach those who needed them. Thanks to this, by 2008, islet transplants became available on the NHS to people with type 1 with no hypo awareness and who experience severe hypos.  

In 2021, our research showed islet transplants are more effective if people receive two transplants over a short period - changing how islet cell transplants are performed in the UK.  

Rachel Brown lives with type 1 diabetes and received an islet transplant after experiencing life-threatening hypos. She said:  

“You feel as close to a normal person as possible. I was even able to come off insulin and my sugars seemed to be in range almost all of the time. Everything is so much better now, and it just made me feel free.”

Watch Rachel discuss the difference her islet transplant made with our researcher, Professor Shareen Forbes.

Beta cells, a challenge for the future

Donor islets are scarce, which limits the number of people with type 1 diabetes who can benefit. That’s why we’re also investing in research to grow new beta cells in the lab.   

This would give us a steady supply of cells so in the future everyone with type 1 diabetes can benefit from transplants.  

Thanks to the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge, we’re making major investments in research to radically improve how beta cells are grown in the lab and fast-track progress towards rescuing people’s own beta cells.  

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