The procedure involved thousands of harvested cells originating from the pancreases of dead organ donors. The patient had these cells injected into a liver vein where they subsequently developed its own blood supply and began producing insulin. Although, the procedure is in its infancy, the implications for the future are enormous, potentially signalling the end of diabetic therapy dependence for all type 1 diabetes sufferers.
For the pharmaceutical industry, the prospect of 17 million sufferers of type 1 diabetes being effectively cured is sure to have an effect on the global market for diabetic treatments. According to IMS data, the global market for oral diabetes treatments exceeded $4.5 billion (€3.4 billion) in 2004. The global market for insulin approximated $3 billion in 2003.
The patient, a 61-year old man from the UK, had three procedures over four months at King's College hospital, London. The treatment should allow him to loosen the regimen of self-blood testing, self-injecting and dietary rectitude all type 1 diabetic patients with must follow to avoid complications, which range from confusion and loss of consciousness to eye problems and renal failure.
Historically, islet transplants have only been partially successful, in that they have reduced the amount of insulin required, but the need for regular injections still remained.
Canadian researchers were the first to demonstrate that people with type 1 diabetes could remain free of insulin injections after the treatment was complete. A British surgeon, James Shapiro, at the University of Alberta in Canada, pioneered islet cell transplants. In 2000, he reported that seven patients had been insulin independent for 11 months.
Professor Stephanie Amiel, consultant in diabetes at King's College Hospital, London, commented: "In its current state of technology though, islet transplantation is not perfect. We do not have enough organ donors, therefore we cannot extract enough islets to help all Type 1 patients."
"More research needs to be done to perfect the islet isolation procedures and the drugs we use to prevent rejection of the islets and recurrence of the diabetes. At present we can therefore only offer this treatment to patients, in whom conventional treatments are failing in a major way."
Amiel added that the ultimate aim would for all people with Type 1 diabetes to become eligible for islet transplantation and free from insulin dependence.
In the UK alone, 250,000 people have type 1 diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes. The condition usually appears before the age of 40. The patients live with the constant need to be aware of their blood glucose levels and the threat of long term complications such as blindness, renal failure, amputation and cardiovascular disease.
The news of this breakthrough comes after scientists in the US revealed that they might have discovered a previously unknown form of diabetes, after finding the brain produces insulin as well as the pancreas.
Unlike other types of diabetes, the form, dubbed type 3 is not thought to affect blood sugar but brain insulin levels, and appears to be linked with Alzheimer's disease. Scientists have known for some time that people with diabetes have an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, by up to 65 per cent.
The team's research into type 3 diabetes appears in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.