The islet cell transplant has recently become one of the most effective tools in diabetes care. The first human transplant was performed in 1990 and since then, patients living with diabetes have had the opportunity to have this surgery and become “insulin independent” (www.diabetes.org).
To recap some important terms: islets are a type of cell in the pancreas. Some of the islets, called beta cells, produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that the beta cell produces to break down sugars in the body. In diabetics, the beta cells do not produce insulin, so the pancreas cannot break down the sugars in the body. This is where fluctuations in blood sugar readings comes from.
The islet cell transplant takes working islet beta cells from a donor (usually a cadaver) pancreas – just the cells, not the organ itself – and puts them into a diabetic body in the hope that the cells will be accepted and begin to work as functioning beta cells should. Many transplants have been effective, but there is a lot of work to be done after the physical transplant.
Sometimes, the cells don’t adapt, and it is considered an ineffective transplant. In some studies, patients required up to three or four transplants before achieving insulin independence (www.sciencedaily.com). However, when the transplant does work, the daily insulin injections are replaced by daily oral medicines to counteract any possibility of cell rejection (www.mayoclinic.com).
You may have heard of the Edmonton Protocol or the UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) Protocol. These “protocols” concern life after the transplant in a series of medicines that patients receive in order to make sure that the cells adapt to the body.
In short, the transplant has had promising results in studies, but each case in unique. For more information, and to find out if the transplant is an option for you, please talk to your doctor.