Insulin is a hormone that regulates the blood sugar levels. In healthy people this is produced by so called beta cells in the pancreas, which assemble in small groups in the pancreatic islets, known as the Islets of Langerhans. If the immune system destroys these cells this causes the autoimmune disease type 1 diabetes. Patients are no longer able to produce insulin and that’s why they require a daily dose for the rest of their lives. However, treatment with exogenous insulin is not without risk.
Until recently, there were only two ways to treat type 1 diabetes. First, there is the traditional method, which involves measuring blood sugar and then correcting it with an adapted dose of insulin, injected subcutaneously. Then, in recent years, treatment can involve transplanting Islets of Langerhans from dead donors into patients with the most severe fluctuations in blood sugar levels. However, the number of pancreata available from which to isolate such Islets is limited and their quality is very variable.
UZ Brussel is now conducting a premiere. It tests an experimental treatment with two-centimetre capsules, which contain stem cells and are implanted subcutaneously. After a while, some of these develop into insulin-producing beta cells, and others into cells that form useful additional hormones. Later, the aim is to investigate how effective these implants are, how much insulin they produce and how long they continue to do so.