In a trial that could one day lead to a way to slow the ravages of type 1 diabetes, a New Zealand company announced Thursday that it plans to implant newborn pig cells into eight people with the blood sugar disease.
The Associated Press reported that these cells produce insulin that the researchers are hoping can be used to lower blood sugar levels in these volunteers. However, a company official told the wire service that such a treatment will not eliminate all the symptoms of type 1 diabetes indefinitely, which include blindness, premature heart disease and poor blood circulation that can lead to the amputation of limbs.
Critics have also expressed concern that putting these pig cells into humans might introduce a new virus into the human population, a fear that company officials said is unfounded.
"There is no evidence of a risk of retrovirus infection," Bob Elliott, medical director of Living Cell Technologies, told AP. "Nobody has developed a retrovirus."
Elliott stressed that the pigs being used in this trial come from isolated islands south of New Zealand, and are being kept in a sterile environment. He also noted that he has run two previous trials, the first with six patients in New Zealand in 1995-1996. A Russian trial with 10 patients began two years ago. In those trials, the cells that weren't rejected produced insulin for roughly a year, although the cells in one patient continued generating the hormone for 12 years.
The pig cells that will be implanted in this latest trial are coated in a membrane made from seaweed, which will eliminate the need for immunosuppressant drugs, according to company officials.
With type 1 diabetes, the body mistakenly attacks the pancreas to the point where the organ stops producing the insulin needed to break down sugars in the blood and convert it to energy.