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Saturday, 27 January, 2001, 02:02 GMT
Doctors hail diabetes breakthrough
Insulin rules many diabetics' lives
Insulin rules many diabetics' lives
A potential cure for diabetes, which scientists say could conquer the condition in 10 years' time, is to be tested in the UK.

The treatment could end the daily rigours of insulin injections and could potentially help 130m diabetics worldwide.


We are extremely excited by this opportunity and feel we have to grab it with both hands.

Moira Murphy
Diabetes UK
The charity Diabetes UK, with the University of Leicester, hopes to set up trials at seven centres across the UK by this summer, at an initial cost of 300,000.

The treatment involves transplanting cells into the livers of diabetes sufferers.

It has been developed in Canada by British-born surgeon James Shapiro.

So far, 13 out of 15 Canadian patients who have had the treatment have been effectively "cured", and have not had to inject insulin for two years.

Diabetes stops the body converting blood glucose into energy because the hormone insulin is either not produced or does not work properly.

About 1.4 million people in the UK are diagnosed with diabetes. An estimatedone million more have the condition but are not aware of it.

Half a million people have to give themselves daily insulin injections to maintain their glucose levels.

Around 50,000 have the most serious Type 1 form of the disease, where the islet cells in the pancreas which produce insulin are destroyed by the body's own immune system.

Even with the daily injections, some Type 1 sufferers are unable to control their blood glucose levels and frequently lapse into potentially fatal diabetic comas.

They are also prone to heart attacks, strokes, blindness and kidney failure, and their lives are shortened by an average of 15 years.

Cell treatment

Dr Shapiro, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has developed a way of taking islet cells from a donor and injecting them into the diabetes sufferer's liver.

The treatment takes half a day and can be done under local anaesthetic.

After two injections, the cells kick-start the body's insulin production and no more treatment is needed.

Those patients who have already had the revolutionary treatment, have to take a mixture of anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives to stop their bodies destroying the transplanted cells.

However, scientists hope developments, particularly in field of stem cell research, mean this will not always be the case.

Scientists hope the trials will enable 10 islet transplants to be performed in a year.

Unsuitable for all

Dr Shapiro said the treatment did involve risks and would not be suitable for all diabetics.

But those with severe diabetes, or who often lapse into comas could benefit.

"We have to balance the risks of the treatment procedure and anti-rejection drugs against the risks these patients face every day. These patients have a 25 times greater risk of kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes and blindness, and have an average of 15 years sliced off their life span."

Islet cells, found in the pancreas, could theoretically be developed from stem cells.

If taken from the patient being treated, they would not be rejected, so that immuno-suppressants would no longer be needed.

"If we can trick them to grow more islets, that's where the ultimate goal will be," said Dr Shapiro.

"There is some preliminary work being carried out already that indicates that it's possible to grow new islet cells, but not to the level where they could be used to treat patients. "It might take five to 10 years or longer to refine these techniques."

Moira Murphy, director of research at Diabetes UK, said: "It is early days yet, but this may well lead to a cure for diabetes.

"We are extremely excited by this opportunity and feel we have to grab it with both hands.

"That is why we have brought together this new research consortium. If this research proves successful, it could revolutionise the lives of people who currently need to take daily insulin injections to just to stay alive."

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See also:

23 Jan 01 | Health
Drug 'reduces diabetes risk'
03 Jan 01 | Health
Diabetes gene identified
29 Feb 00 | Health
Diabetes reversed in the lab
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