Treating Diabetes with Pig Cells

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are working on a new treatment that could be life changing for type 1 diabetics.

In fact, these scientists claim that the need for daily insulin shots could fade away in as little as three years! Thanks to their work, implanting insulin-producing islet cells from pigs into humans just might be a reality.

Pigs Can Help Treat People

Using insulin from pigs has been common in diabetes treatment for a long time, but until recently the fear of passing along viruses kept transplanting pig cells off limits. However, UAB investigators Hubert Tse, Ph.D., and Eugenia Kharlampieva, Ph.D. have collaborated in their studies and found a way to protect the body and the transplanted cells so they both can function properly.

Currently, Tse and Kharlampieva are conducting tests on lab mice. They coat clusters of pig islet cells with five layers of a very thin biometric material (each layer is about the width of one two thousandth of a human hair). With this layer in place, the transplanted cells have had great success. Not only do they stay alive in the mice bodies, they continue to produce insulin.

The End of Insulin Shots?

While Tse and Kharlampieva do content that the transplanted cells only survived in the mice bodies for around 40 days, they are astonished by the success of these initial trials. “We showed that they do stay alive, and they function to regulate blood glucose,” they have reported. “We did not expect the multilayers would show such a large, potential benefit.”

Pig islet cells produce an unlimited supply of insulin (for contrast, human cells have only limited resources), and if a successful transplant were to take place, a diabetic patient my no longer need to inject insulin. The success of UAB's latest studies have sparked a new hope for countless of diabetics around the world. Japan has relaxed its strict transplant rules in light of these findings, and the nation hopes to conduct the first pig-to-human transplant in 2019.

UAB's research has also found approval in the eyes of the JDRF Diabetes Foundation, who are supporting their work with two new grants. "[This study] is a nice example of a truly multidisciplinary project that encompasses distinct areas of expertise including engineering, nanomaterials, immunology and islet transplantation," Fran Lund, Ph.D., professor and chair of Microbiology at UAB, has said. "The project also melds basic science and engineering with the goal of developing better treatments for diabetes."

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