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Medical School announces findings in diabetes therapy

November 3, 2004

Forty-two years ago, Dan Quigley injected his first insulin shot to treat his Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes, a routine repeated three times a day, every day until recently. On Oct. 29, the 55-year-old Door County man stood with Medical School physicians Luis Fernandez and Jon Odorico to announce that he is finally insulin-free after receiving the first islet cell transplant performed in the state. Quigley had the transplant in 2002.

A handful of medical centers in the world are offering islet cell transplantation as an experimental therapy for diabetes. The Medical School has been researching islet cell transplantation since 2002. Currently, islet cell transplants are done as clinical research.

“Pancreatic islet cell transplantation is a big step forward for diabetes research in that it offers the potential to eliminate insulin injections and control blood sugar without major surgery,” says Odorico.

Islets (pronounced “eye-lets”) are cell clusters in the pancreas that release the necessary amount of insulin to maintain normal sugar levels in the body. Destruction of islet cells leads to Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes. Islet cell transplantation is the biological replacement of the islet cells.

Islet cells are extracted from the donor pancreas through a complex purification process. The cells are kept alive in lab dishes until they’re infused through an IV directly into the liver via the patient’s portal vein using X-ray guidance. Because diabetes destroys a patient’s pancreas, doctors transfuse the new cells into the liver, where they turn out insulin as needed.

Quigley, a father of two and a computer consultant in Fish Creek, says this is a step in the right direction but more work needs to be done. “The number of people being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes far outweighs the number of donations coming in,” he says.

Though islet cell transplantation is still considered experimental, recent advances in cell isolation and purification and better immunosuppressive drugs have allowed more successful results in clinical trials. Quigley was the first participant enrolled in the UW clinical study, which is designed to study the effectiveness of pioglitazone, a medicine that sensitizes the body’s cells to insulin, in combination with islet cell transplantation.

Islet cell transplantation is experimental and available only to those who meet defined criteria. To be considered for the UW Islet Cell Program, call (608) 263-2565.