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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 10:57 GMT
Q&A: Diabetes transplant
Image of diabetes
Type 1 diabetics need to monitor their blood sugar levels
Japanese researchers have reported a 27-year-old woman has been cured of type 1 diabetes thanks to a donor transplant of insulin-producing cells from her mother.

In March, a 61-year-old man became the first person in the UK to be cured of type 1 diabetes thanks to a cell transplant using tissue from dead donors.

BBC News website looks at what an islet cell transplant involves.

Q: What is type 1 diabetes?

In diabetes, blood sugar is too high because the body cannot use it properly.

This is because the hormone insulin which enables the body to control blood sugar levels is either not produced by islet cells in the pancreas or does not work properly.

People with type 1 diabetes need to inject themselves with insulin to correct their blood sugar, whereas people with type 2 diabetes may be able to control their blood sugar by avoiding foods that cause big rises in blood sugar or by taking medication.

Eventually they may need to use insulin as well.

The transplant technique is being used to treat people with type 1 diabetes.

Q: What is an islet cell transplant?

For the transplant, healthy islet cells are taken from pancreases from dead or living donors and injected into the patient's liver.

Once there, they develop their own blood supply and begin to produce insulin.

Q: Why doesn't it cure all people with type 1 diabetes?

The technique is not perfect.

Patients may still require top-up insulin because the transplanted cells do not produce enough to control blood sugar.

Experts believe islets from living donors have the advantage of being more viable and more likely to function properly than islets from dead donors.

Also, there are many more potential donors than with islet cells from the deceased.

Two or more whole pancreases from dead donors are needed for an islet transplantation, compared to just half of a living pancreas, experts have found.

Taking donor cells from a close relation reduces the risk of rejection of the transplanted cells by the recipient.

However, the recipient will still have to take powerful drugs to stop them rejecting the new cells.

Q: How long have islet cell transplants been around?

The first procedure using cells from dead donors was carried out in 2001.

Canadian researchers were the first to demonstrate that people with type 1 diabetes could remain free of insulin injections after the treatment was complete.

Two other patients in the UK have been treated with the procedure, but both still need small doses of insulin.

Q: Could everyone with type 1 diabetes receive an islet cell transplant soon?

No. There is a big shortage of donor pancreases from which to extract islet cells. In the UK alone, about 250,000 people have type 1 diabetes.

Using living donors could potentially overcome this problem, experts hope.

But the procedure is not without risks to both the recipient and the living donor.

The technique is also still relatively new. This means there are only a limited number of healthcare professionals who can carry out the procedure.

Scientists have also been looking at ways to make more of the islet cells required using stem cells.


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