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What is Islet Transplantation Research?

In order to use energy (in the form of glucose) from food, the body needs a hormone called insulin. The cells that make insulin are found within the pancreas. These cells are clustered in formations called Islets of Langerhans, so they are often referred to as islet cells or pancreatic beta cells.

Islet Cells and Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes destroys the body’s islet cells, leaving people with the disease unable to produce their own insulin. One of the most promising potential treatments for these people is the possibility of transplanting them with healthy insulin-producing islet cells from donor pancreases to restore their ability to make insulin and cure their diabetes. Currently, these types of transplants are performed in only a very small number of people, but researchers in the Section on Islet Transplantation and Cell Biology (link) are looking for ways to make this treatment practical for all people with type 1 diabetes.

There are several major obstacles that must be overcome first:

  • There is a critical shortage of islet cells available for transplant;
  • Transplanted islets must be protected from immune attack caused by diabetes;
  • Transplantation requires the use of powerful anti-rejection drugs following the procedure and these drugs cause serious long-term side effects;
  • Often, transplanted islets lose some of their function several years after transplant.

Joslin Researchers are Searching for Answers

  • What are the best sources for insulin producing cells that might be used for transplantation?
  • How can researchers make more insulin-producing cells? Can stem cells be reprogrammed to generate new islet cells(link to stem cell section)?
  • How are insulin-producing cells affected when they are transplanted into someone with diabetes? Do the cells change?
  • How can researchers preserve and protect the islet cells that are available? What strategies prevent transplanted islet cells from being destroyed?

Most Commonly Used Terms

Autoimmune disease: disorder of the body’s immune system in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys body tissue that it believes to be foreign.

Pancreas: an organ that makes insulin and enzymes for digestion. The pancreas is located behind the lower part of the stomach and is about a hand.

Page last updated: December 18, 2014