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A new approach to islet transplants

Project summary

Professor James Shaw will work with researchers from Israel to pioneer a new approach that involves transplanting insulin-producing islets with cells that improve blood vessel growth and oxygen supply. Ultimately, this technique could improve the effectiveness of islet transplants and help to free people with Type 1 diabetes from insulin with a single transplant.

Background to research

Some people with Type 1 diabetes can't sense when their blood glucose levels are too low – this can be very dangerous and is termed ‘hypo unawareness’. Islet transplants are available through the NHS and can help this group of people to manage their diabetes and restore hypo awareness.

However, islet transplants are not perfect: multiple donors are needed to provide enough islets for a single transplant and each islet transplant gradually stops working over time, so that follow-up transplants are usually necessary.

One of the reasons for this is that islet cells need a constant supply of blood and oxygen to survive. During a transplant, this oxygen supply is interrupted. This damages the cells so that more than half of them die off within a week. Previous studies have shown that growing and transplanting islets with another type of cell (called ‘endothelial progenitor cells’) that encourages new blood vessels to grow, can help to maintain the function of the islets. Researchers in Israel have recently developed a technique that allows them to extract these helper cells from blood.

Research aims

Professor James Shaw at Newcastle University is one of the leading UK experts on islet transplants. In this study, his team will collaborate with researchers from Israel to pioneer a new approach that involves growing and transplanting islet cells with cells that encourage new blood vessels to grow, keeping the transplant supplied with oxygen.

The researchers will combine human islet cells and endothelial progenitor cells to grow ‘mini-organs’. They will then study these ‘mini-organs’ in an animal model, looking at the impact they have on the ability of the islets to survive and overall blood glucose levels.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

The researchers hope that the new approach will keep transplanted islets supplied with blood, helping them to survive and function for longer. If this technique works in animals, it will pave the way for trials in humans.

If successful, this technique could become a truly life-changing therapy for people with Type 1 diabetes, by helping to free them from insulin therapy with a single islet transplant.

This project has been adopted by:

Diabetes UK local groups: Durham and Gateshead

Individuals: Joanne & Dave Bamber

Organisations: The Frances & Augustus Newman Foundation
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