LOS ANGELES -- Physicians at St. Vincent Medical Center here announced yesterday that they had begun the first U.S. human trials of an artificial pancreas to treat insulin-dependent diabetics.
The artificial pancreas was implanted last week in the abdomen of Steven Craig, 38, of Lake Isabella, Calif., who has been diabetic for more than 30 years and has been unable to work for seven years because of complications of the disease. It is the first of 20 such implants the hospital is planning over the next two years.
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong of St. Vincent and the University of Southern California implanted insulin-secreting islet cells from cadavers. The cells were encapsulated in a porous membrane )) that keeps them safe from an attack by Mr. Craig's immune system.
Dr. Soon-Shiong hopes the implanted cells will free Mr. Craig from the need for daily insulin shots and prevent progression of his symptoms but noted that it would be months before doctors can assess the implant's value.
"This is the very first step on a long, exciting but unexplored road," he said.
When and if the device is shown to be safe and effective, the researchers hope to be able to use pigs as islet donors, which would theoretically provide enough cells to treat all 1.4 million insulin-dependent diabetics in the United States.
Officials of the American Diabetes Association cautioned diabetics not to get high hopes.
"It's nice, and it's exciting, but that doesn't mean it is going to work," said physiologist Richard Kahn, the association's chief scientific and medical officer. "Come back in six months. If the patient still does not need insulin injections . . . then we have something."
Insulin-dependent or Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body's immune system destroys islet cells in the pancreas. Insulin is normally released by the pancreas when the level of sugars in the bloodstream rises after eating. The insulin enables the body to use the sugars for energy.
If the body does not receive insulin, it must use stored carbohydrates for energy. The buildup of toxic byproducts from that process eventually leads to coma and death.
Diabetes is now treated with insulin obtained from cows or pigs or with human insulin produced by the biotechnology industry. But because insulin is injected periodically, the levels of blood sugar go through wide variations.