Currently, there is no cure for diabetes, although there is treatment that can help people maintain normal lives. Most often, insulin or another medication that either increases natural insulin production or decreases the release of glucose can be used to treat the disease. Not all cases respond well to these medicines, however.
Those who suffer from diabetes either cannot produce their own insulin, and therefore need to inject it in order to maintain healthy blood sugar levels in the body, or their bodies do not respond to it very effectively. In Type 1 diabetes, insulin is actually destroyed by the body, which can be extremely harmful to the person's health.
Insulin is carried in little cells called islets, and studies began to address whether donor islets might provide a cure for diabetes. The first study on islet transplantation evaluated only two patients in New Zealand who were given islets from a porcine donor. The original results suggested the possibility of doing more tests on islet transplantation, although neither subject was able to completely end his or her dependence on insulin. The test did not cure the diabetes, but the number of islets that were transplanted were less than the body would normally require, so this technique still has promise.
On 28 September 2006, The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a more comprehensive study on the islet “cure” for diabetes. Islets were transplanted from deceased human donors, and the tests were conducted in several locations around the world on 36 patients. In this test, which is still a small sampling of patients, 44% of patients were living independently of insulin after one year. Another 28% had partially functioning islets and were able to reduce their insulin intake. The remaining 28% had no live graft islets at the end of one year.
The study continued for a year past this point, and the results were less promising. Within two years, 76% of the group required insulin. Only five of the initial 36 people tested were able to remain independent of insulin at the two-year mark. Though the outcome is not a miracle cure for diabetes, it does suggest that insulin dependence might be reduced by islet transplantation in people with Type 1 diabetes. The study did not examine people with Type 2 diabetes.
Islet transplantation remains a treatment, not a cure, unless scientists can recalculate the number of islets transplanted and make adjustments that would allow a greater amount of participants to become independent of insulin. No doubt, research will continue to progress along these lines, with perhaps greater numbers participating in such testing. Medical researchers also continue to examine other possible methods, like pancreas transplantation, that might ultimately provide a cure for diabetes.