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From Raleigh, North Carolina,USA:

I am 12 years old and have been a diabetic for 7 years. I'm very interested in the science fiction field. Is cloning a pancreas a possibility for the future? If so, could you give me a website to read more about on this topic?


It's a good idea and there have been many research studies along these lines; but let me try to explain briefly why I don't think it's going to come off in the foreseeable future.

First of all let's define cloning. To me, it is the introduction of the genetic material as a cell nucleus from one species into the cell of another from which the nucleus has been removed. If the substituted cell reproduces then under specially contrived circumstances it may be possible to clone an individual. As you probably know this was done in Scotland recently with a sheep called Dolly. At a less dramatic level there have been many demonstrations of growing cells that have had the characteristics of different cells introduced into them by substituting nuclei.

At the moment, there is very very little understanding of how to grow a complex organ like a pancreas. It has been touched on with some studies that have shown that if cells from the ducts in a pancreas are treated with a certain protein they will begin to produce islet cells.

Let's go a little further though, what you would really like to do would be grow islet cells and use them to replenish your own which are no longer functioning. Well, first of all, islets are very hard to grow and when they do they soon lose their ability to produce insulin. The nearest anyone has got to this was to transplant part of the pancreas from an identical twin. This was done several times; but didn't work because in Type 1A diabetes, there is a disorder of the body's immune system which rejected the twin tissue. Now if you take islet cells or a whole pancreas from another person, it's called an allograft, the same rejection happens unless you use some rather powerful drugs to suppress the rejection. These drugs can of themselves cause complications so they aren't often used in young people unless it is absolutely necessary.

Let me end with a brief survey of the prospects developing that I think will be better than a cloned pancreas. First of all, some new microcapsules have been devised into which easily available porcine islets can be put. These are permeable to insulin and sugar and other nutrients; but impermeable to the chemicals like interleukins that mediate rejection. So immunosuppressive drugs are not needed. There will be a delay in making this approach available until it can be shown with certainty that no pig viruses will be transmitted in the process.

The other source of optimism is that there have been considerable advances in developing instruments that measure blood sugar without having to prick your finger. These are about the size of a large wristwatch and they also store the results so that you can download them on to a computer or transmit them to your doctor.

The next step, then, is going to be to hook up this sort of a device to control a pump at which point it looks as though you will have quite a good artificial pump. Maybe you need to become an engineer!

There are two websites that you might use to pursue your research. One is PubMed and the other is BioMedNet.


Original posting 18 Aug 1998
Posted to Research: Cure


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