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Sunday, 17 June, 2001, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
'An end to insulin jabs'
A baboon was used in the tests
A baboon was used in the tests
The prospect of an end to daily insulin injections for diabetics has been brought closer with a successful cell transplant of pig cells into a baboon.

Researchers from the United States took specially coated insulin-producing pancreas cells and injected them into the diabetic animal, which has not needed insulin for a year.

UK diabetes campaigners say the success of this research is the way scientists were able to "coat" the cells so that the body does not attack the donor material.

It could revolutionise the lives of people who currently need to take daily insulin injections to just to stay alive

Eleanor Kennedy,
Diabetes UK
The treatment could be applicable for people with Type I diabetes, and some with Type II (adult onset).

But the majority of people with Type II diabetes would not be suitable because their bodies can produce insulin but not process it.

Scientists from Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, led by Emmanuel Opara, research professor of experimental surgery and cell biology at Duke University carried out the study.

He told BBC News Online he hoped the technique could be used in human tests within a year or two.

He said: "We envision being able to place these islets within the abdomen of humans using existing laparoscopic or minimally invasive techniques.

"At this point we do not know how often patients with diabetes would need this therapy, but the baboon data to date are very encouraging."


The researchers coated cells from within the pancreas called islets of Langerhans which produce and secrete the hormone insulin.

Insulin converts sugars, starches and other foods to produce energy for the body to live on.

Cells from pigs' pancreases were used to treat the diabetic baboon
Cells from pigs' pancreases were used to treat the diabetic baboon
Islets of Langerhans do not work properly in people with Type I diabetes, which means they cannot produce insulin.

Without injecting insulin, they could suffer blindness, kidney disease, or even die.

The pig islets were isolated from the rest of the pancreas, and then bathed in a special carbohydrate called alginate, before a semi-porous membrane was created around them.

Professor Opara said the baboon pancreas was suitable for the tests because it was very similar to a human's.

To produce diabetes in the baboon, 90% of its pancreas was removed and the remainder, left so the animal could still digest food properly, treated with a chemical which killed the islets cells.

The researchers could confirm the islet transplant had worked because a protein formed in the production of insulin was found in the baboon's bloodstream.

It took around 250,000 islet cells taken from three pigs to treat the baboon.


The researchers say they do not yet know how many pig pancreases would be needed to treat a human, but say 90 million pigs are used for food in the US, which would provide "more than enough" to treat diabetics in the country.

Five more baboons are now receiving the treatment.

The cells work because they have pores on their surfaces large enough to allow glucose to enter and insulin to exit, but they are small enough to prevent immune system cells entering and attacking them.

The researchers say the cells could be placed anywhere in the body where they would come into contact with blood or other body fluids.

Eleanor Kennedy, research grant manager of Diabetes UK, said: "If this research proves successful, in the long term it could revolutionise the lives of people who currently need to take daily insulin injections to just to stay alive."

She said: "The use of pig islets is not uncommon but this project's success in encapsulating them is encouraging."

She said the charity was co-ordinating UK islet research, aimed at developing successful human islet cell transplantation.

The US findings were presented to the International Pancreas and Islet Transplant Association conference in Innsbruck, Austria on Friday.

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