Canadian researchers said they have developed a cell transplant technique that eliminates the need for insulin injections in the treatment of diabetes.
The development is so striking that the New England Journal of Medicine released the University of Alberta study almost two months early and put it up on its Web site.
Scientists injected pancreas cells near the liver in eight diabetes patients. The cells took up residence in the liver and began producing the long-lost insulin that controls blood sugar levels.
If the results are confirmed in a larger study slated to begin this summer and doctors can find a better source for the cells, which must now be harvested from cadavers, it could mean the end of insulin-dependent diabetes, says Dr. James Shapiro, who led the study.
"This is going to be a tremendous advance," Shapiro says, "certainly for people with type 1 diabetes." The most severe form of diabetes, type 1 usually appears in childhood.
"That's what has been unique about what we've been able to accomplish in the past 18 months," said Dr. Jonathan Lakey, a co-author of the study. "Eight consecutive patients no longer need insulin shots."
The long-term safety and effectiveness of the technique must still be established.
In addition, the recipients must now take a combination of three drugs designed to prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted cells. Those drugs increase the risk of cancer and infection.
In type 1 diabetes, the insulin producing cells in the pancreas -- which regulates sugar -- have been destroyed, reports CBS News Correspondent Maureen Maher.
The Canadian team took islet cells from a donor pancreas and injected them into the liver, which almost immediately began making insulin.
The procedure has been around for more than a decade, but this time, patients were given more than one injection as well as anti-rejection drugs without steroids. The results were stunning.
One of the subjects of the study, Robert Tesky, says he feels like he's been cured.
He says, "If cure means feeling normal, I'm about as close to a cure as you can get."
Dr. Kevin Herold, of the Naomi Berry Diabetes Center at Columbia University, says, "It's the first time that a series of patients have been rendered insulin free by this sort of approach."
He says this is a very promising study, adding, "ultimately we want to find a cure to the disease, but this the first sort of step in that direction."
But with more than one million Americans living with type 1 diabetes, Dr. Gordon Weir says there is a major hurdle to overcome.
He says, "These islet cells have to be obtained by cadaver donors and it's simply not enough to supply this to all type one diabetics."
Because transplant patients must take anti-rejection drugs for life, which can some tims have severe side effects, the procedure is not being recommended for children or anyone whose diabetes is under control.
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