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Survival of the fittest beta cells

09 August 2012

JDRF-funded researchers in Canada have just begun a new clinical trial to test a drug that may help more beta cells survive during islet transplants.

The team led by Dr James Shapiro will test the ability of a drug called emricasan to protect beta cells that have been transplanted into people with type 1. Emricasan stops transplanted beta cells from dying after the transplant by blocking the biological pathway that causes cells to self-destruct in times of stress. Blocking this pathway gives beta cells a better chance at surviving the transplant.

This is a small pilot trial of 12 people. The researchers will give the drug to participants in the trial two hours before their transplant and for two weeks after it. They will then analyse the transplant success rates.

At the moment, islet transplants are quite inefficient, because many of the beta cells die in the period directly after the transplant due to stress. Improving the efficiency of islet transplants would mean that fewer cells would be needed for a successful transplant. This might then mean that islet transplants could be given to more people with type 1.  Islet transplants are not currently a common treatment partly because organ donation rates mean the supply of is far outstripped by demand.

If this trial with emricasan is successful it may also mean that the drug has a wider role in type 1 treatment in the future. The drug could potentially be important in the success of transplants from other sources, such as beta cells grown from stem cells in the laboratory.

Maebh Kelly, Research Communication Officer at JDRF said, ‘This is an important research project as the low rate of beta cell survival after transplant is one of the major roadblocks for beta cell therapies. Improving the survival rates of beta cells after transplant will be very useful once beta cells from sources such as stem cells become a reality’.

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