Pig cells may help diabetic patients

A young girl injects herself with an insulin pen.
A young girl injects herself with an insulin pen. SIP/UIG Via Getty Images

TORONTO – Though insulin pumps — machines which deliver insulin to diabetic patients continuously throughout the day — have made life easier, it’s not a cure. But recent research out of Northwestern University in Illinois is giving diabetics new hope.

The university is looking at the transplantation of islets cells in human patients. This isn’t the first time that pigs have been involved with helping diabetic patients: the first insulin that was produced was through pigs.

These islet cells — called islets of Langerhans — are produced by the pancreas. Islets consist of many types of cells, including beta cells that produce insulin.

In the bodies of people with type 1 diabetes, their immune system attacks the beta cells, leaving them unable to produce any insulin. These people must inject themselves daily with insulin (people with type 2 diabetes produce insulin, but their bodies either are not able to produce enough of it or are unable to use it properly, so they may or may not need to take daily injections of insulin).

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Researchers from Northwestern University took islets from rats and transplanted them in mice. What they found was that the mice accepted the cells and — more importantly — didn’t need any immunosupression drugs.

“They produced insulin. They made these diabetic mice no longer diabetic,” said study co-senior author Xunrong Luo. “And they were able to do that for as long as we had followed them…to as long as 100 days, which is about half of their lifetime.” Though the research paper they presented cited a 100-day success rate, in reality, the researchers followed the rats for over a year. The mice continued to produce insulin.

The study is important for the future of islet transplantation because, though human islet transplantation has seen some success, it carries two problems: lack of donors and the recipient’s rejection of the islets.

When human islets are transplanted in people, the recipient is required to take immonsuppresants to fight off the rejection. This in turn, can make the patient ill.

Researchers from around the world are seeking ways to cure patients with type 1 diabetes. At the University of Toronto, where Dr. Frederick Banting and Dr. Charles H. Best discovered insulin, there is ongoing research into using stem cells as a means of curing diabetes.

Dr. Gary Lewis, Director of the Banting and Best Institute at the University of Toronto, and a professor at the Department of Medicine and Physiology, said that more realistically, the artificial pancreas is likely to be the next big step in diabetic treatment rather than islet transplantation.

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“Islet transplantation should be reserved for those who are really, really struggling to maintain their sugars,” Dr. Lewis said. He also stressed the success of current treatment.

“Any person with diabetes has to really embrace current treatment techniques and do the very best they can, because we do pretty well with the current treatment techniques,” he said. “I can tell you that a diabetic clinic these days looks very different to a diabetic clinic 20 years ago… We keep people pretty healthy.”

Asked whether or not this could be the cure that diabetics are looking for, Dr. Lewis said that it’s hard to tell. An artificial pancreas, similar to an insulin pump, is more likely to be the next big step. But, he said, “The next breakthrough experiment could be tomorrow. Or maybe it was yesterday and we just haven’t heard about it yet.”

Though the research out of Northwestern University is promising, scientists need to conduct further study. The first human trials may not begin for another two years.