U researchers experiments bring hope to battle against diabetes

Scientists reversed diabetes in monkeys by transplanting pig pancreas cells.

Yelena Kibasova

University researchers are closer than ever to finding a widely accessible cure for diabetes.

Researchers at the Diabetes Institute for Immunology and Transplantation found a way to successfully reverse diabetes in monkeys with the transplantation of pig pancreas cells.

Bernhard Hering, professor of surgery and lead investigator of the study, said that as a result of the research, ìa critical milestone has been met.î

This discovery could make islet cell ó a pancreatic cell that produces hormones such as insulin and glucagon ó transplantation for persons with diabetes widely available and has potential as a cure for the disease. The research is available in the current online issue of Nature Medicine.

The transplanted cells survived in the monkeys for the 180-day duration of the study. Hering said researchers can assume the cells survived for much longer after the study ended.

ìWe have a much better understanding of the immune system and the systemís reaction to pig islets,î Hering said.

Islet transplantation already is used to reverse Type 1 diabetes in a small population of patients, but those islet cells come from human cadavers.

Lorna Zaworski of Minneapolis received a human islet transplantation from the University in 2000. Before the procedure, Zaworski suffered three or four episodes of abnormally high blood sugar each day because of her Type 1 diabetes.

After the transplant, Zaworski said, she was insulin-free for nearly five years, though she recently started using a very small dose of insulin again.

ìI think the transplantation is a very positive thing,î Zaworski said. ìMy quality of life is so turned around Ö itís unreal.î

Hering said that with approximately 20 million diabetics in the United States, the demand for human islets outweighs the supply. Pig islet cell transplantation brings new hope that a larger population can be helped.

Researchers at the University hope to start clinical trials using humans within the next three years.

The transplantation requires no surgery and no anesthesia, Hering said. Participants in the clinical trial will be observed for at least a year.

If the transplantation is successful, the islets will sense blood glucose levels and release the appropriate amount of insulin to regulate blood-sugar levels in the body.

Hering said the transplantations can help people with Type 1 diabetes and possibly those with Type 2 diabetes who suffer from complications.

Pig islet transplantation offers hope for those with secondary complications of diabetes including damage to the heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves, Hering said.

Gita Byraiah, a sophomore biology student whose father has Type 2 diabetes, said she is happy to hear about the new discovery.

ìI think if the research has been done and it works, itís a perfect opportunity to use what they have found,î she said.

Byraiah, who also works as an office assistant at the Diabetes Institute for Immunology and Transplantation, said her father does not have complications from his diabetes and probably would not need a transplant.

Since healthy pigs are needed for the transplantations, Spring Point Project ó a nonprofit corporation ó is working to build sanitary facilities where healthy pigs can be raised.

Hering said the pancreas holds the islets, but the remains of the pig will not go to waste. He said the rest of the pig probably will be used for other research or possibly in the food market.

Spring Point Projectís work will occur simultaneously with the research at the University because it takes time to build facilities that meet federal requirements for using animal tissues in humans. This will provide suitable donor pigs by the time the clinical trials begin.

Hering said more research still is necessary.

ì(The research) needs a lot of confident support to take it all the way to an established treatment that is available everywhere,î he said.

Zaworski said she compliments the Universityís efforts in diabetes research.

ìLetís get rid of this disease,î she said. ìIf the pig islet cells are the way to go about it, letís try it.î