For many people with Type I diabetes, hypoglycemia — or low blood sugar — is a constant threat. After years of insulin treatment, these people’s bodies no longer recognize when their blood sugar is low, and are left vulnerable to sudden attacks of weakness, dizziness, confusion and even seizures. However, a 2014 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania shows that islet cell transplantation just might offer these individuals a cure.
Hypoglycemia is a side effect of insulin therapy that is sometimes known as an insulin reaction or “insulin shock.” Most people who develop the condition experience early warning signs, such as shakiness, irritability, sweating and chills, the American Diabetes Association reports. In individuals who have been exposed to insulin for a long time, however, these early warning signs sometimes disappear.
Dubbed “hypoglycemia unawareness,” this condition was almost completely reversed in 12 patients who received a transplant of islet cells from deceased donors, states Dr. Michael Rickels, associate professor of medicine and medical director of the pancreatic islet cell transplant program at Penn Medicine. The procedure holds great promise for insulin-dependent diabetics, but is still in the investigational phase, Dr. Rickels explains.
What’s more, islet cell transplantation is not without risks. Complications such as bleeding, blood clots and rejection often occur. Further, patients must take immunosuppressive medications, which increase the risk of infection and some cancers, for the remainder of their lives, University of California at San Francisco Transplant Surgery reports.
Islet cells comprise about 1 to 2 percent of the human pancreas. In healthy people they produce insulin, a hormone that converts consumed sugars to energy and maintains blood sugar within a narrow normal range. However, in the 5 percent of diabetics who have Type I diabetes, these insulin-producing cells are absent, leaving the person dependent on manufactured insulin for the rest of his life, the American Diabetes Association reports. Most people with Type I diabetes are children and teens.
Although islet cell transplantation shows great promise for reversing hypoglycemia unawareness and helping people with Type I diabetes lead a normal life, much more research is needed to find a cure. An entire team of world-renowned scientists at the University of Michigan Brehm Center for Diabetes Research is working to make diabetes a thing of the past.
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