Diabetes Manage Islet Cell Transplantation

The islet cell transplant is an exciting, new treatment for diabetes. Until now, type 1 diabetes could only be managed through regular use of insulin. The prospect of a viable alternative to insulin injections offers hope of a functional cure to many people with diabetes.

Islet Cell Transplantation - Diabetes Management

What is Islet Cell Transplantation?

Islet cells are the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. The pancreas is a hand-sized organ that’s positioned behind the lower part of the stomach. Here are some islet cell basics:

  • The two major types of islet cells are alpha cells and beta cells.
  • Alpha cells make glucagon, a hormone that raises the body’s blood sugar level.
  • Beta cells manufacture insulin.
  • If the beta cells aren’t productive enough, diabetes results.

An islet cell transplant involves removing beta islet cells from a donor pancreas and transferring them to a Type 1 diabetic. Once implanted in the recipient, the new islet cells should begin to manufacture and release insulin, helping you to manage your diabetes. The hope is that islet cell transplantation will become an alternative to insulin injections as a treatment for diabetes.

Islet Cell Transplant Risks

Islet cell transplantation, while a promising technique to manage your diabetes, is still very new. Only a few hospitals worldwide perform this procedure and clinical trials are still being conducted.

Like any other transplant or surgical procedure, an islet cell transplant does have its risks, namely, the possibility of rejection. Since the human immune system is designed to destroy foreign invaders, it may try to destroy transplanted beta islet cells.

In order to minimize the possibility of rejection, immunosuppressive drugs often supplement this treatment for diabetes, which keep islet cells healthy. However, these drugs do have significant side effects, including possible:

  • Decreased kidney function
  • Decreased white blood counts
  • Higher cholesterol levels
  • Increased susceptibility to infection
  • Mouth sores
  • Risk of incurring tumors and cancer.

Understanding Islet Cell Transplantation

Even with its risks, an islet cell transplant is still considered far less intrusive than a pancreas transplant. In fact, an islet cell transplant often takes less than an hour to complete, and this treatment for diabetes is performed with a local anesthetic.

In order to be successful in the average sized person, the treatment requires about 1 million beta islet cells. These cells are extracted from a donor pancreas, sometimes from two donors. The islet cells are directly infused into the recipient’s liver through the portal vein.

NOTE: The new cells are affixed to the recipient’s liver (as opposed to her pancreas) because physicians can more easily gain access to the liver. The transplanted islet cells often grow well in the liver, which acts as a backup pancreas.

Once transplanted, the new islet cells work to regulate blood sugar by producing insulin, helping you to manage your diabetes. Note that the new islet cells gain function gradually, so you won’t notice the effects immediately. In the meantime, you’ll want to continue your traditional insulin treatment for diabetes until your new islet cells start to produce enough insulin on their own.

More research is necessary to find out exactly how long transplanted islet cells will survive, and whether this procedure will create a long-term cure for diabetes. Scientists are also working toward finding a way to perform successful islet cell transplantation without the need for immunosuppressive drugs.


American Diabetes Association. (2010). Islet transplantation. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/treatment-and-care/transplantation/islet-tranplantation.html.

Arizona Board of Regents. (2009). Islet cell transplantation. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from http://www.surgery.arizona.edu/abdominal-transplantation/clinical-programs/islet-cell.

Baylor Health Care System. (n.d.). Focus on: Transplant services; islet cell transplant. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from http://www.baylorhealth.com/HealthSource/transplantservices/transplantsperformed/isletcelltransplant/Pages/Default.aspx.

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. (2007). Pancreatic islet transplantation. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/pancreaticislet/.