Cell transplant dramatically changes diabetic's life

Experimental cell plant transplantation has dramatically changed the life of a diabetic woman.

Elaine Robinson, a 54-year-old woman from Victoria has become the first patient to receive a transplant designed to help people with type-one diabetes.

The procedure which was carried out at the St Vincent's Institute, involved transplanting insulin-producing islet cells taken from a donor pancreas, then injecting them into Ms Robinson's liver.

This was done to promote the production of the hormone in the patient.

The islet cells instantly took root following the operation in December and started producing insulin.

According to Professor Tom Kay, head of the transplant program, the results exceeded expectations.

Elaine Robinson of Glen Waverley suffers from type 1 diabetesis and is just one of more than 140,000 Australians with the debilitating disease; it is also known as juvenile diabetes.

For most of her adult life, Ms Robinson has needed regular insulin injections which even then did not control the almost daily, sudden, hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar) attacks that left her trembling, sweating and at times unconscious.

Since the treatment her hypoglycaemic attacks have almost stopped and she now needs to inject only a small fraction of the amount of insulin she was using previously; a second transplantation should eliminate the need for insulin.

Professor Kay says Ms Robinson now has the blood glucose level of an average person and the insulin levels of a minor diabetic with their condition well under control.

While he emphasises that the technique is still experimental, he says to see type 1 diabetes reversed in this way is remarkable.

The experimental treatment was funded by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research, alongside researchers in Sydney, Adelaide and overseas.

At present patients need immuno-suppressant drugs so their bodies do not reject the new cells, and those drugs often cause serious side effects that for many are worse than the original disease.

There is also a limited supply of donor organs and fewer than 90 donor pancreases become available every year for this type of operation in Australia; more than 2000 people are newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes each year.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation says several experimental techniques were already showing promise to make the treatment more widely applicable.

One involves surrounding the cells with a membrane, making them invisible to the body's immune system thus removing the need for immuno-suppressant drugs.

New sources of islet cells are also being researched either by "reprogramming" similar cells from elsewhere in the body such as the gut, or possibly taking cells from the pancreas of a pig.

Scientists in the United States have recently managed for the first time to turn stem cells into insulin producers that responded to blood glucose levels.

Professor Kay says while more research and donors are needed, it is hoped the transplant will become widely available in the future.

He says in the future there may be other cell types and other technologies that can be used to broaden the availability of transplants.

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