Type 1 diabetes patients who have developed hypoglycemia as a complication of insulin treatments over time are able to regain normal internal recognition of the condition after receiving pancreatic islet cell transplantation, according to a new study led by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and published online in Diabetes. Severe hypoglycemia can occur when the body’s defense mechanisms against low blood sugar are broken down over a long period of time, causing shakiness, irritability, confusion, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and even seizures or loss of consciousness.

In this study, led by Michael R. Rickels, MD, MS, associate professor of medicine and medical director of the Pancreatic Islet Cell Transplant Program at Penn Medicine, type 1 diabetes patients who were suffering from “hypoglycemia unawareness”—when a patient has low blood sugar, but feels no symptoms—were able to internally recognize the condition and automatically increase their own blood sugar to normal levels six months after undergoing islet cell transplantation

 “The results of this study suggest that islet cell transplantation may be an effective treatment for patients with type 1 diabetes who are experiencing significant hypoglycemic events because their body isn’t able to recognize their low blood sugar levels,” said Rickels. “Currently, islet cell transplantation is considered investigational for type 1 diabetes patients, but this study shows that it has the potential to dramatically improve a patient’s ability to defend against and recognize symptoms of hypoglycemia and eliminate severe hypoglycemic episodes.”

Patients who undergo pancreatic islet cell transplantation receive islets from deceased donors, sometimes through two separate infusions. In this study, 12 patients with hypoglycemia unawareness and frequent severe hypoglycemia events underwent either one or two infusions of islets in order to achieve insulin-independence. The subjects all had approximately 30 years of disease history before the infusion, and their bodies’ ability to recognize hypoglycemia was measured prior to the infusion and at six to seven months afterwards. The results were then compared to a control group. Following the islet cell transplantation, the subjects’ time spent hypoglycemic was nearly abolished. In addition, their bodies were able to

The paper’s co-authors, all of whom are from Penn, include Carissa Fuller, CRNP, Cornelia Dalton-Bakes, CCRC, Eileen Markmann, BSN, RN, Maral Palanjian, RN, Kevin Cullison, MD, Janice Tiao, Shiv Kapoor, PhD, Chengyang Liu, MD, Ali Naji, MD, PhD, and Karen L. Teff, PhD.