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Study Backs Cell Transplants for Severe Diabetes

(18 Apr 2016) FOR CLEAN VERSION SEE STORY NUMBER: apus053503

Transplants of insulin-producing pancreas cells are a long hoped-for treatment for diabetes — and a new study shows they can protect the most seriously ill patients from a life-threatening complication of the disease, an important step toward U.S. approval.
These transplants are used in some countries but in the U.S. they’re available only through research studies. Armed with Monday’s findings, researchers hope to license them for use in a small number of people with Type 1 diabetes who are most at risk for drops in blood sugar so severe they can lead to seizures, even death.
In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys the pancreatic cells responsible for making insulin, a hormone crucial to converting blood sugar into energy.
When glucose levels drop too low, most people with Type 1 diabetes experience early warning signs — slurred speech, tremors, sweating, heart palpitations — so they know to eat or drink something for a quick sugar boost. But even with optimal care, about 30 percent eventually quit experiencing those symptoms, a condition called hypoglycemia unawareness. They can be in grave danger if their blood sugar plummets when no one else is around to help. Continuous glucose monitors can counteract that problem, but even those don’t help everyone.
The National Institutes of Health targeted that fraction of highest-risk patients, funding a study that gave 48 people at eight medical centers at least one islet cell transplant.
A year later, 88 percent were free of severe hypoglycemia events, had their awareness of blood sugar dips restored, and harbored glucose levels in near-normal ranges. Two years later, 71 percent of participants still were faring that well, concluded the study published by the journal Diabetes Care.

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