University of Minnesota research hopes to find cure for diabetes through pig cells

The next great discovery in the fight against diabetes will likely come from an unexpected source: pigs. 

It's a line of research being overseen by Dr. Bernard Hering at the University of Minnesota, modifying cells from a pig's pancreas to match human ones that have long been used for cell transplants.

"It's a privilege to contribute to much better treatments for diabetes." Hering said. "Perhaps we can someday find a cure."

An "islet transplant" procedure currently transfers clusters of cells called islets, which produce insulin and make up a very small percentage of the pancreas, from a healthy person to another with diabetes. The goal is to help patients ultimately live without daily injections of insulin.

A shortage of human donors, however, and vicious side effects caused by a battery of necessary immunosuppressants--anti-rejection drugs often taken after organ transplants--make the procedure costly and recovery arduous. Stephanie Arneson was diagnosed with diabetes 52 years ago and, after her islet transplant in 2001, became all too familiar with the side effects of the procedure.

"I get really bad infections. I've had fungal pneumonia, you get really tired because you're always trying to fight something in your body," she said. "Your body is always trying to push those cells out."

With a lot of hard work and a little luck, Dr. Hering and his team hope to stop these side effects by tailoring donor cells exactly to their recipient, eliminating the need for anti-rejection drugs. 

It's a research project that is now being watched by millions of diabetics around the world who hope to someday relieve or even eliminate their own symptoms. 

"We have now more and more reason to believe that we can turn this into a tangible benefit for diabetics and their families," Hering said. "We can make transplantation routine, commonplace and on-demand."