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New Procedure Offers Promise for People with Type I Diabetes

Currently in the U.S., about one million people suffer from Type I, or "juvenile", diabetes. This type of diabetes can be extremely hard to treat, requiring careful control of blood sugar levels with insulin injections. But a new procedure offers promise in reversing the effects of Type I diabetes.

Since age five, Sherry Crocco has had Type I Diabetes. Her condition includes hypoglycemia unawareness, meaning her body can no longer tell when her blood sugar levels are too low, and she can suddenly pass out.

"Okay, I'm alone with the kids, do they know how to call 911, four years old? They had to be sure, okay if Mommy can't wake up, this is what you need to do," says Sherry.

People with Type I Diabetes can't produce islets, the cells that make insulin to control blood sugar levels. So Sherry enrolled in a University of Minnesota study that transplanted islet cells from a donor cadaver pancreas into her body. She was one of eight Type I diabetics to receive the transplant. The study findings appear in a special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, focusing on medical applications of biotechnology.

Dr. Bernhard Hering, of the University of Minnesota says, "All eight recipients became diabetes-free and insulin independent after islet transplantation and were protected from hypoglycemia episodes after transplantation."

That means no more insulin shots and no more fainting spells, at least initially. Dr. Bernhard Hering and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota tracked the eight patients for a year after their transplants.

"Five of eight recipients have remained diabetes-free and insulin independent at the end of the one-year follow-up period of the study," says Dr. Hering.

The doctors used a catheter to send the islet cells into the liver and blood stream.

"Now we really see that cell-based therapies can reverse diabetes," says Dr. Hering.

The cell transplant takes only about a half-hour. But patients must keep taking strong drugs to stop their bodies from rejecting the donor cells. Still, Sherry Crocco has one word to describe living essentially diabetes-free: "awesome"