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Penn Medicine on Oct. 11, 2022. Credit: Liliann Zou

A new method developed by the Clinical Islet Transplantation Consortium will enable many of the seriously affected Type 1 diabetes patients to achieve years of insulin independence.

The researchers, co-led by Michael Rickels, the Willard and Rhoda Ware Professor in Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases in the Perelman School of Medicine, found that many patients didn’t need insulin to maintain their blood sugar for up to eight years. The research also found that this new approach required fewer transplants than usual and was extremely safe, according to Penn Medicine News.

Islet transplantation — a form of cell replacement therapy — is the process of separating islet cells from a donor pancreas and transplanting those cells into a person that has Type 1 diabetes, according to Penn Medicine News. The study was conducted to determine the long-term effects of transplantation for Type 1 diabetes patients. 

Islet cells are located in the pancreas, where they produce insulin and are critical to keeping blood sugar in check. The islets of those with Type 1 diabetes have been destroyed by their immune systems and do not carry out this function. Islet transplantation is a non-surgical procedure, the only procedure outside of a full pancreas transplant that can restore natural insulin production in patients with Type 1 diabetes, according to the Diabetes Research Institute.

For more than half of the Type 1 diabetes patients who participated in this study, the treatment removed their need for insulin for several years.

“These data are important in showing that, in the long run, islet transplantation has efficacy, including among those who have had kidney transplants,” Rickels told Penn Today. 

“Yes, most Type 1 diabetes patients are improved tremendously with current insulin delivery systems. But for those having the most difficulty controlling their blood sugar, and those whose diabetes has already been complicated by needing a kidney transplant, the outcomes we saw in this study are what we’ve been hoping to achieve for more than 20 years.” 

Since 2004, Rickels and his colleague Ali Naji — the J. William White Professor of Surgical Research — have worked with the Clinical Islet Transplantation Consortium to establish a standardized method for islet isolation and transplantation and to demonstrate its efficacy and safety as a new cell therapy to treat Type 1 diabetes, according to Penn Medicine News. 

The patients in the study were among the most seriously affected by their disease. 

Penn Medicine News reported that when measuring the safety of the process, researchers found there were 104 “serious adverse events”  — meaning hospitalization for any reason — for the total patient population in the study after receiving islets. 

“It’s important to note that none of the adverse events were related to the actual islet product," Rickels said. "Overall, this is a much less invasive procedure that opens itself up to significantly fewer complications than what many of these patients would otherwise require, a pancreas transplant, which involves major abdominal surgery.”