Cell transplant treatment for diabetics gets the green light in the UK

Sufferers in the UK with Type 1 diabetes have been given new hope of a cure with a nationwide cell transplant programme.

It has been announced that six centres will receive government funding to develop a ground-breaking technique for more cell transplants involving vital insulin.

The initiative has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of people with Type 1.

To date only a limited number of the transplants have been carried out in the UK, the technique uses cells from the pancreas of a dead donor which are injected into the liver of the diabetic and the cells then produce insulin.

The pancreas harbours clusters of cells known as the islets which are made up of several types of cells, including beta cells which make the insulin.

Type 1 diabetes usually develops in childhood and is unconnected to lifestyle factors such as obesity but it means victims are unable to produce enough insulin or cannot use it properly and rely on injections of the hormone to survive.

The transplants are minimally-invasive and take just 45 minutes, but mean diabetics can live their lives with fewer or no injections.

The £7m national government programme has been awarded to two islet isolation laboratories, one in London operated jointly by King's College Hospital and The Royal Free, while the second will be based in Oxford.

They will operate 24 hours-a-day to receive donor pancreases and prepare islet cells for transplantation and will work with six transplant centres throughout the country in order to ensure the transplants are widely available on the National Health Service.

The UK's first successful islet transplantation in a Type 1 diabetes patient in 2005 was performed at King's College; the procedure offers benefits to diabetics who are at risk of hypoglycaemia - low blood sugar which can cause comas.

Some who have already received the treatment have been completely 'cured' of the condition and no longer need to take insulin while others have made such significant progress that they no longer suffer life threatening seizures.

Type one diabetes can be caused by an infection or a defect in the immune system which makes the body destroy its own insulin producing cells in the pancreas.

Type 2 diabetes which is commonly triggered by obesity can often be controlled with diet.

Experts say as many as one in four people with type 1 diabetes have few or no symptoms before an imminent attack meaning they cannot take action to prevent it and it is these 'unstable diabetics' who are at the greatest risk.

The teams at King's College Hospital and the Royal Free will isolate and harvest the cells from the donor organs and along with centres in Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol will offer the transplants to around 20 patients in the first year, and more after that.

A successful transplant demands more than 300,000 cells and patients can have up to two transplants.

The only other option for many for these patients is a transplant of the whole pancreas but complications can be life threatening and patients have to take immunosurpressant drugs for the rest of their lives which can increase the risk of infections and cancers.

Such a radical step is only contemplated in the most serious cases.

The Department of Health will invest up to £2.34 million in islet transplant services in the first year, increasing to £7.32 million a year.

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