Tellabs Foundation Funds Islet Cell Research at UIC

Dec 27, 2007 08:00 AM

Islet transplant recipient Kimberly Carlson of Lisle, Ill., knows first hand what it’s like to suffer the debilitating effects of diabetes and then discover a whole new life without the need for insulin.

“Unless you’re diabetic and you live that life, you don’t realize what it’s like,” said Carlson, 41, who was one of the first 10 patients to receive an islet transplant at the University of Illinois at Chicago as part of a pilot trial conducted by Dr. José Oberholzer and a team of international researchers seeking a functional cure for diabetes.

Carlson, who was diagnosed at age 17 and needed daily insulin to control her blood sugar, no longer requires insulin to control her type 1 diabetes. She credits the Chicago Project at UIC with having a huge impact on her life.

“I can now look forward to seeing my children grow up, because my diabetes is not causing damage to my eyes and other vital organs,” Carlson said.

The Chicago Project brings together research scientists and physicians from Switzerland, France, Israel, Canada, Italy, the United States and Norway to create a nontraditional model of sharing scientific information and seeking funding to accelerate islet research.

Carlson has worked 23 years—nearly her entire diabetic life—at Tellabs in Naperville, Ill. Knowing the mission of the Tellabs Foundation is “to advance specific, strategic endeavors in communities where Tellabs employees live and work,” she encouraged Oberholzer, principal investigator of the Chicago Project and director of cell and pancreas transplantation at UIC, to apply for a grant. The Chicago Project relies on private philanthropy to further its research.

After Carlson submitted a letter in support of the Chicago Project, the Tellabs Foundation awarded Oberholzer’s team $300,000 to fund islet cell research.

Islet cell transplantation allows patients with type 1 diabetes to achieve insulin independence, glucose control and freedom from life-threatening hypoglycemic attacks, according to Oberholzer. But the treatment also has limitations.

Each donor pancreas can produce only enough islets to help, at most, one diabetic, and the demand for organs exceeds the supply. And recipients must take multiple medications to suppress the immune system to avoid rejection of the islets.

The Chicago Project aims to develop an unlimited supply of islet cells from donor pancreases and encapsulate the cells to prevent rejection, Oberholzer said. Its researchers have developed microencapsulation technology that protects human islets from rejection in animal models of diabetes. The next step is to begin clinical trials in humans.

“This grant will allow us to test microencapsulation technology in diabetic patients, which we believe will prevent rejection of the cells when transplanted, without immunosuppression drugs, while allowing the islets to function well enough to control a person’s diabetes,” Oberholzer said.

Carlson, who has experienced side effects from immunosuppressant drugs, says that eliminating the need for these medications will improve the quality of life for patients.

There are more than 194 million diabetics world-wide, including 20 million diabetics in the United States. Most could benefit from an islet transplant, according to Oberholzer, if enough islet cells were available—just as Kimberly Carlson did.

“I can now get into a car and drive, without worrying that my blood sugar will drop dangerously low and cause me to have an accident,” Carlson said. “Having my independence is a godsend. Before, my family was scared to let me out alone.”

The Chicago Project received initial start up funding from the Washington Square Health Foundation.

UIC ranks among the nation’s top 50 universities in federal research funding and is Chicago’s largest university with 25,000 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state’s major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world.

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[Editors note: Photographs of Carlson are available at]

Sherri McGinnis González