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UPMC Transplant Hospital in Sicily Performs Its First Pancreatic Islet Transplantation

PALERMO, Italy, March 20, 2012 – The Istituto Mediterraneo per i Trapianti e Terapie ad Alta Specializzazione (ISMETT), operated by UPMC  in Palermo,  Italy, performed its first pancreatic islet-cell transplant on a man suffering from type-1 diabetes to prevent serious complications from the disease. The Feb. 23 surgery was the first ever done in Sicily and one of the first in all of Italy.

Pancreatic islet cells are the cells that produce insulin. To perform a pancreatic islet cell transplantation, a team must extract the cells from the pancreas of a cadaveric donor using a special machine and purify them. Those cells are then infused into the recipient in a process similar to a blood transfusion: The islets are infused through a vein that carries blood to the liver to enable cell colonization in the patient’s organ.

Doctors say the benefits of such a transplant include avoidance of major surgery, such as a pancreas transplantation, less time spent recovering in a hospital, and a return to a good quality of life just days after the procedure. Doctors at ISMETT say the recipient of the surgery, a 57-year-old Sicilian man who had already undergone kidney transplantation, is in good condition and being strictly monitored.

“This first islet transplant is the result of six years of preparation,” said ISMETT director Bruno Gridelli, M.D. “We set up very sophisticated laboratories at ISMETT to allow the safest possible preparation of the cells to be transplanted. Together with the Ri.MED Foundation, we have given young Sicilian researchers the chance to go to the University of Pittsburgh and to the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami to learn the most advanced methods of pancreatic islet-cell isolation. With our interventional radiology techniques, the islets can then be transplanted into the liver.”

The entire process involved a multidisciplinary team, including ISMETT’s Radiology Unit and its Regenerative Medicine and Biomedical Technologies Unit, which is directed by Pier Giulio Conaldi, M.D., and coordinated by Anna Casu, M.D., a diabetologist and head of ISMETT’s Pancreatic Islet Transplantation Program.

Many of the researchers who participated in the procedure had spent time at UPMC, where they studied this new frontier of transplant medicine through funding from the Ri.MED Foundation. Pancreatic islet cell transplantation is considered experimental in the U.S., and the use of islet cells is regulated by the government. UPMC is seeking permission to perform similar transplants in Pittsburgh.

Islet transplantation is possible in large part thanks to a cell extraction and purification method invented in the late 1980s by Camillo Ricordi, M.D., and for whom the method of extracting islet cells is named. Dr. Ricordi is the director of the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami and has been president of ISMETT’s board of directors since 2004.

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