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Islet Cell Innovations Offer New Hope

Islet Cell Innovations Offer New Hope


Surgeons at Cleveland Clinic remove a diseased pancreas from a critically ill patient and send the organ down the highway to Pittsburgh. Hours later, the pancreas’ vital islet cells are retrieved at the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) islet cell isolation lab. They are driven back to Ohio late that afternoon. Just before midnight, the healthy cells from a failing pancreas are injected into the same patient’s liver, which takes over the job of producing insulin.

Doctors who advance the boundaries of medicine are living proof that innovation can lead to a new purpose for failing organs and better health. 

Newest techniques pioneered here

At Allegheny Health Network’s Institute of Cellular Therapeutics the islet cell isolation lab at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) is:

  • Pennsylvania’s most comprehensive lab of its type
  • One of only a few labs in the country doing this remarkable work

What is chronic pancreatitis?

Inflammation in the pancreas interferes with digestion and can eliminate the cell clusters that produce insulin (called islets or islet cells). Chronic pancreatitis:

  • Is a serious, painful illness, leading to diabetes
  • Leads to removal of the pancreas, so patients can’t produce insulin
  • Requires a patient to take medication to digest food
  • Causes dependency on insulin injections

Turnpike partnership between medical leaders

In this process, most healthy islet cells come from donated pancreas organs. But AHN also works with the Cleveland Clinic on innovative auto-transplants. In these transplants, surgeons at Cleveland Clinic remove the pancreas from the patient, put it on ice and immediately drive it to Pittsburgh.

At the AGH islet cell isolation laboratory, Dr. Massimo Trucco, director of the institute, and his team:

  • Extract between 200,000 and 300,000 islet insulin-producing cells from the diseased pancreas
  • Restore and place the islet cells in an IV bag to make a return trip to Cleveland 

Returning cells to work in the body

The cells arrive late the same night and are transfused into the same critically ill patient. The cells lodge in the liver and, eventually, start producing insulin again.

  • With this technique, cells from a patient’s own removed organ are restored and returned to them.
  • About 70 percent of the surgical patients have an improved level of insulin production as a result.  

Medical experts explain

“Once the patient doesn’t have a pancreas anymore, he or she is essentially diabetic until the transfusion of the islets is complete and successful,” says Dr. Trucco. “We put the islets into the vein that supplies blood to the liver. The islets park in the liver, stay there and they do their job.”

“Some of these patients will produce enough of their own insulin for many years. But even those who don’t make enough insulin have better management of their diabetes than patients who do not have the islet transplant,” says Dr. Rita Bottino, a principal investigator at the AHN Institute of Cellular Therapies.

Innovative therapy explained


Allegheny General Hospital

Supporting Story

Doctor Rita Bottino and her team work every day to extract healthy cells from failing organs. They have completed over 100 procedures and approximately 30 of those cases involve young children.