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Is There a Cure for Diabetes? Islet Cell Transplants

Updated on March 6, 2015
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Stephanie Hicks has been a type 1 diabetic for 15 years. She manages the disease with an insulin pump, doctor visits, diet, and exercise.

Is there a Cure for Diabetes: Type 1?

Type 1 diabetics have some relatively good reason for hope in the past 5 years. Technologies have advanced to the point that islet cell transplants - the cells that produce insulin - can be made to a diabetic patient's pancreas.

Specifically, the cells are called the Islets of Langerhans. Of these, beta cells produce the hormone insulin, which is the key that unlocks cells to allow energy from glucose in to power the human body. Without insulin, sugar builds up in the blood to dangerous levels, leading to hyperglycemia and potentially deadly ketoacidoisis.

Unlike regular organ transplants, an islet cell transplant operation only requires transplants of cells (see the diagram below). While that may sound less invasive, in fact, in order to get the number of cells needed, two or more pancreases may be required from deceased donors. And, importantly, it is still considered experimental in the United States. However, islet cell transplants have had some early notable success.

Diagram showing islet cell transplants for diabetics
Diagram showing islet cell transplants for diabetics | Source

What Happens with Islet Cell Transplants?

Once transplanted, the new islet cells generally begin to make and release insulin, such that the patient technically is no longer considered to be diabetic. Of course, blood sugar tests are conducted on a less frequent basis to ensure the functioning of the new cells.

As with any type of transplant surgery, the patient will have to stay in the hospital for several days post-operative, and must continue to take anti-rejection medication indefinitely. Unfortunately, there can be nasty side-effects of the medicine, including nausea, vomiting, fatigue, acne, diarrhea and some that are more serious, like forms of cancer.

Patients' bodies do not always accept the new cells. At times, the healthy cells, do not become operative in the diabetic's pancreas, and the operation is not a success. This is a risk, of course, of any transplant surgery.

Islet Cell Transplant to Cure Diabetes?

More on Islet Cell Transplants for Diabetes

Can Islet Cell Transplants Cure Diabetes?

The success rate is good for islet cell transplant surgeries, but could be better. Within a year of transplant, approximately 40 percent of patients are still insulin free. That means the transplanted cells are doing their job and the patient does not need to resort to taking shots to counteract high blood sugar levels. Three years after the surgery, only about 17 percent of the patients are still symptom-free. And, by 5 years, the number drops to 10 percent. Even among the patients that had to use insulin again, however, their overall blood sugar control was much improved than before the operation.

Should we give up? Is this not worth the advances? Absolutely not! Anything that can result in a diabetic not having to count carbohydrates and take shots is an advancement in my book. You have probably just bought that person an additional 10-15 years of life. The bonus as far as quality of life, in addition to longevity, cannot even be quantified.

What about Stem Cell Research?

For the past several years, scientists have had methods to turn embryonic stem cells into islet cells, which would greatly increase the number of cells available for transplant into diabetic patients. Because federal funding has been cut off for stem cell research, the future now rests in the hands of individual states. The American Diabetes Association is a huge advocate of this research and is actively involved in efforts to continue the important scientific advancements that may result from stem cell research, not only for diabetics, but also Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease, and a host of other ailments.

The research is controversial, due to the beliefs of right to life groups who have concerns about the use of human life to advance medical technology. Others, however, argue that many frozen embryos would otherwise be destroyed by their parents when they are not used for reproduction (many more embryos are created for infertile couples than are needed).

Fortunately, this debate may not have to reach a zenith. Stem cell research is progressing to the point where scientists can take certain living cells from humans and convert them to other types of cells. Stem cells themselves are undifferentiated "generic" cells that eventually are directed to become specific, specialized cells that serve a purpose in a mature being (i.e., blood cells, bone cells, skin cells, etc.). Until recently, the mature cells could not be "reprogrammed" to become cells other than what they already were.

With each passing year, medical advancements in the field of diabetes continue the march toward a cure for diabetes. I am hopeful we will reach that point in my lifetime! It is exciting to see how far the technologies have come just in the past 5 years. Imagine 10 years from now....

A Cure for Type 1 Would Mean No More Shots!

© 2008 Stephanie Hicks


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    • profile image

      Kim 6 years ago

      I have beem type 1 diabetic for over two years. While the promise of being insulin free gives me hope, the idea of immune supressing drugs for possibly the rest of my life seems like an opening for a whole host of future issues. I do hope they can someday solve both the auto immune and rejection issues without a permanent drug regimen. I just wish my sister could have lived to see this type of news, even if the long term success is under 10%.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thank you woodamarc - as a Type 1 diabetic, I am so excited for R&D to come up with potential cures for diabetes. Best to you, Steph

    • woodamarc profile image

      Marc Woodard 6 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      I've just added this hub link to a hub I just published, "Pancrease Health, Why Should I be Concerned." Your hub is a great piece of work that will compliment the message, Why pancreas health is important to the overall metabolism. Keep those great hubs coming!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks molometer, I hope your sister-in-law finds this interesting. I've been Type 1 diabetic for about 9 years now. While this hub was published several years ago, we are still looking for a viable cure for diabetes. Thanks for your comment. Best, Steph

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Very interesting. My sister in law is diabetic and I will pass this info on to her. Thanks I will be reading more of your writing. Thank again. Voted up UI

    • profile image

      kennedy 7 years ago

      I have diabetes and I heard about this.I am 8 years old.

      I've had this since I was six. It was the month of my birthday. I was turning seven the week after I went to the hospital. I hate getting shots. I get them four times a day.

      P.S. my birthday is next month I'm turning 9 years old


    • profile image

      rj 7 years ago

      hi i have been diabetic for half my life and the islet cell transplantation gives us diabetics hope, but the use of immunosuppressants really scares me. Multiple injections of islet cells is a possibility, Who knows what tomorrow brings- 2pac

    • profile image

      mark 8 years ago

      I am looking to find anyone who has had this done. It is in clinical trials now but as mentioned above there are side effects and how much success it different for everyone

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 8 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

      A fantastic diabetes hub for hope, thank you for sharing it. creativeone59

    • profile image

      diabetes jokes, jokes about diabetes, diabetes humor, nurse jokes 8 years ago

      nice video. thanks for sharing your knowledge regarding this matter. its very helpful. thanks also for discussing it clearly and easy to understand by using videos and pictures.

    • hub-hub profile image

      hub-hub 8 years ago from UK,M

      bravo hub

      maybe this site will help you with more information

    • profile image

      David 9 years ago

      Apart from immunosupression, survival of transplanted beta cells could be accomplished by encapsulation. Moreover, in the face of lost functionality of transplanted cells, one could rely upon multiple infusions -- every so often. As the 'surgery is no more than a glorified injection, that shouldn't be too hard. The article seems to speak of the pancreas as a target area for the introduction of cells. That is incorrect as other spots can do very nicely, e.g., liver, peritoneum.

    • profile image

      Stem Cells 10 years ago

      Very interesting and in depth information. Thank You So Much for Sharing.

      To Know more about Benefits of Adult Stem Cells

      you can listen to a Scientist and real Life testimonials here

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Right, Redflower. That is what the results seem to show. My article indicates a definite decline in effectiveness - by 5 years post-op, only 10 percent of the patients are still insulin-free. The benefit, however, is that the patients tend to have better insulin receptiveness, even when they go back to taking shots. Little, by little, there does appear to be hope for a long-term cure within our lifetimes.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • redflower345 profile image

      redflower345 10 years ago

      Hi Stephanie:

      I did a project for a client who was interested in in-licensing technology for diabetics. We looked at antibodies, peptides, stem cells, islet transplant and recombinant proteins.

      Word to the wise on islet cell transplant to your researchers. The patients typically revert back to needing insulin within 7 years. As a result, this is only a temporary solution. We interviewed Key Opinion Leaders and islet cell transplant specialists all over the world and that was the consensus opinion.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks Amy Jane! I loved learning more about it. Unfortunately, you have to be a pretty sick diabetic to be eligible for the transplant surgery. But someday, I do have hope, more and more people will be able to get closer to reversing the condition!

    • amy jane profile image

      amy jane 10 years ago from Connecticut

      Wow Steph, this is a very interesting hub! Congrats :)

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks - I've been watching this very closely for myself!

    • Angela Harris profile image

      Angela Harris 10 years ago from Around the USA

      I've had a couple of friends who were Type 1 diabetics when they were teens. It was difficult for them at that age. My husband is a Type 2 diabetic. This sounds promising!

    • Peter M. Lopez profile image

      Peter M. Lopez 10 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

      I must confess ignorance: when I read the title of your hub, I had no idea what you were going to be writing about. This is interesting stuff. Congrats and good luck.