The pancreas, an organ about the size of a hand, is located behind the lower part of the stomach. It makes insulin and enzymes that help the body digest and use food. Spread all over the pancreas are clusters of cells called the islets (eye-lets) of Langerhans. Islets are made up of two types of cells: alpha cells, which make glucagon, a hormone that raises the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood, and beta cells, which make insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that helps the body use glucose for energy. If your beta cells do not produce enough insulin, diabetes will develop. In type 1 diabetes the insulin shortage is caused by an autoimmune process in which the body's immune system destroys the beta cells.
In an experimental procedure called islet transplantation, islets are taken from a donor pancreas and transferred into another person. Once implanted, the beta cells in these islets begin to make and release insulin. Researchers hope that islet transplantation will help people with type 1 diabetes live without daily injections of insulin.
Scientists have made many advances in islet transplantation in recent years. Since reporting their findings in the June 2000 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, have continued to use and refine a procedure called the Edmonton protocol to transplant pancreatic islets into selected patients with type 1 diabetes that is difficult to control. In 2005, the researchers published 5-year follow-up results for 65 patients who received transplants at their center and reported that about 10 percent of the patients remained free of the need for insulin injections at 5-year follow-up. Most recipients returned to using insulin because the transplanted islets lost their ability to function over time. The researchers noted, however, that many transplant recipients were able to reduce their need for insulin, achieve better glucose stability, and reduce problems with hypoglycemia, also called low blood sugar.
In its 2006 annual report, the Collaborative Islet Transplant Registry, which is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, presented data from 23 islet transplant programs on 225 patients who received islet transplants between 1999 and 2005. According to the report, nearly two-thirds of recipients achieved "insulin independence"—defined as being able to stop insulin injections for at least 14 days—during the year following transplantation. However, other data from the report showed that insulin independence is difficult to maintain over time. Six months after their last infusion of islets, more than half of recipients were free of the need for insulin injections, but at 2-year follow-up, the proportion dropped to about one-third of recipients. The report described other benefits of islet transplantation, including reduced need for insulin among recipients who still needed insulin, improved blood glucose control, and greatly reduced risk of episodes of severe hypoglycemia.
In a 2006 report of the Immune Tolerance Network's international islet transplantation study, researchers emphasized the value of transplantation in reversing a condition known as hypoglycemia unawareness. People with hypoglycemia unawareness are vulnerable to dangerous episodes of severe hypoglycemia because they are not able to recognize that their blood glucose levels are too low. The study showed that even partial islet function after transplant can eliminate hypoglycemia unawareness.
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