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Beta Cell Transplant Shows Promise in Curing Diabetes

Researchers say they have developed a new method of transplanting insulin-making beta cells that has the potential to cure people with type 1 diabetes.

People with type 1 diabetes cannot make insulin, a hormone which the body uses to convert food into glucose so it's readily absorbed by cells as fuel. Without insulin, potentially lethal levels of glucose accumulate in the bloodstream.

Those with type 1 diabetes must take multiple insulin shots every day to sustain themselves and avoid serious complications such as blindness, amputations and heart disease.

Researchers have believed if they could find a way to successfully transplant insulin-making beta cells, they could cure the disease.

Doctors perform the transplant by infusing beta cells from a donor into the recipient's portal vein - a short, wide vein that feeds blood into the liver.

"And what they do is they sense the glucose in the blood and they produce insulin and they help the patient regulate, without having to give themselves insulin through injection," he said.

The problem, according to Dr. Saravanan Krishnamoorthy, is sometimes there's bleeding and the operation fails.

In an effort to prevent bleeding, Dr. Krishnamoorthy and a team of radiologists at the University of Minnesota use what they call a "sandwich" technique of closing the wound with a coil to slow the flow of blood, and a gelfoam, which acts like a plug.

Unlike pancreas transplantation, which is another area of research for curing diabetes, the transplant of beta cells is not a major operation.

"It's what we call minimally invasive," he said. "And the end result is that we can probably do this on an outpatient basis."

In a study presented at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, Dr. Krishnamoorthy says 15 type 1 diabetic patients underwent a beta cell transplant between 2002 and 2005 using the wound-closing technique.

One month later, 13 of the patients remained insulin-free without major complications. Dr. Krishnamoorthy says some patients transplanted using the sandwich technique prior to 2002 and insulin independent.

The University of Minnesota is part of an international consortium of research centers trying to understand the various reasons why beta cell transplants fail.