Breakthrough Research Finds Islet Transplantation Effective to Treat Type 1 Diabetes Complicated by Severe Hypoglycemia

Northwestern Medicine
Diabetes April 18, 2016
Northwestern Medicine researchers are co-investigators in a breakthrough clinical trial that found transplanted human islets prevent hypoglycemic events and provide excellent glycemic control for patients with Type 1 diabetes with severe hypoglycemia. The results of the multi-center, single arm, phase III study are published in Diabetes Care on Monday, April 18. The research was funded by National Institute of Health (NIH) grants through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK).

Islet transplantation is an investigational therapy for individuals with Type 1 diabetes in which insulin-producing cells, or islets, from a donor pancreas are transplanted into another person. In patients with diabetes, the pancreas does not properly produce insulin. Using a minimally invasive radiologic technique, islet transplantation infuses working cells that can control blood glucose and possibly eliminate the need for insulin therapy. Islets begin to release insulin soon after transplantation with increased function occurring over time.

“Islet transplantation is heralding a new era of breakthrough therapies for Type 1 diabetes that isn’t controlled by conventional treatments,” said co-author Xunrong Luo, MD, PhD, director of the Islet Cell Transplantation Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Associate Professor of Medicine and Surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “These results make a clear case for islet transplantation as a viable treatment option for individuals with Type 1 diabetes complicated by severe hypoglycemia. Our research found that transplanted islet cells provided glycemic control, restored hypoglycemia awareness and protection from severe hypoglycemic events.”

Hypoglycemia, or abnormally low blood sugar (glucose), is often associated with exogenous insulin administration by diabetics. Glucose is the body’s main source of energy and when its levels drop, individuals may experience symptoms ranging from confusion, irritability and dizziness to more severe complications such as seizures and unconsciousness. Diabetics who use insulin therapy to control glucose levels can develop a complication called impaired awareness of hypoglycemia (IHA) in which the ability to recognize the onset of low blood sugar becomes diminished or absent resulting in severe hypoglycemia. These severe hypoglycemic events (SHE) can cause accidents, injuries, coma and death.

Investigators at eight sites in North America, including Northwestern Memorial, enrolled 48 adults who had Type 1 diabetes for more than five years. They found that nearly 88 percent of the 48 subjects who received islet transplants were free of severe hypoglycemic events, had restored hypoglycemia awareness and had excellent glycemic control at one year.  Researchers also reported subjects had an insulin independence rate of 52 percent at year one.  At year two, 71 percent of subjects were free of severe hypoglycemic events, had restored hypoglycemia awareness and excellent glycemic control. No study-related deaths or disabilities occurred, with five enrollees experiencing transplant-related complications and two had infections attributed to immunosuppression.  Researchers will do prolonged follow up on the enrollees to determine the long-term outcomes of islet transplant for Type 1 diabetes.


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