First NZ patient receives pig cell transplant

By Martin Johnston

Pig cells specially coated in a seaweed-based gel release insulin and other essential hormones. Photo / Supplied
Pig cells specially coated in a seaweed-based gel release insulin and other essential hormones. Photo / Supplied

The first patient in New Zealand has received an implant of pig cells to treat type 1 diabetes in a new trial that marks the resumption of a programme halted 13 years ago.

The 47-year-old man, who has not been publicly identified, was treated at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland in a collaboration with the producer of the specially-coated pig cells, Living Cell Technologies.

He is the first of eight patients to be treated in the clinical trial, which follows a similar, successful trial in Moscow.

The long-awaited and controversial trial offers hope of a new and much improved treatment for type 1 diabetes, which affects around 11,000 people in New Zealand, although if it becomes an approved treatment it is likely to be costly - possibly $100,000 per patient.

The Russian trial showed that the insulin-producing cells taken from the pancreas of neonatal piglets improved the patients' control of their diabetes.

It is expected the same will occur in the Middlemore trial.

The hundreds of thousands of minute clusters of cells, infused into the abdomen, release insulin in response to the person's blood-glucose levels, but are protected from the human immune system by their encapsulation in a coating made from a seaweed-based gel.

Living Cell says the 47-year-old man was selected based on the trial's entry criteria which include poor control of blood-glucose.

"Despite meticulous specialist supervision of frequent daily insulin injections, he has continuing frequent episodes of high blood glucose, high glycated haemoglobin levels (HbA1c) and unacceptable swings including low blood glucose levels (hypoglycaemia)."

In line with the trial's Government-stipulated protocol, each participants is monitored for eight weeks before receiving the implant.

Living Cell chief executive Paul Tan said the 47-year-old, who has had type 1 diabetes for 20 years, was well following the implant and would probably go home today.

He expected the second patient would be implanted in four to six weeks.

A human trial started in Auckland in the 1990s using an earlier version of Living Cell's pig pancreatic cell product, but was stopped in 1996 because of new research that suggested pig-cell implants could allow pig retro-viruses to jump into the human population.

But Living Cell, which has tested the therapy on animals, says there is no evidence of humans or other animals being infected by the viruses.

- NZ Herald

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