September 10, 2015  Print

A team of doctors and scientists based at the Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research and Westmead Hospital have been awarded $3.3 million to extend their ground-breaking research into a clinical cure for type 1 diabetes.

The grant will extend highly successful research led by Professor Philip O’Connell, which involves taking insulin-producing islet cells from a donor pancreas and infusing them into the liver of a patient with type 1 diabetes via the portal vein.

There the islet cells populate and start producing insulin, providing a practical cure for the debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

“Until now treatment has focused on managing the consequences and complications of type 1 diabetes,” he said.

“Winning a grant of this size allows us to assemble the necessary expertise to develop a completely new therapeutic paradigm, which not only has the potential to improve islet transplantation but will also have the potential to treat the disease before diabetes has manifested.

“It will allow us to concentrate on prevention and cure – so that one day patients won’t need insulin injections or pumps, and medical complications will be a thing of the past.”

The four-year research program will aim to develop alternative strategies that promote immune tolerance towards transplanted pancreatic islets, thereby making islet transplantation a viable option for a wider range of Australians living with type 1 diabetes.

Professor O’Connell, who is Director of the Centre for Transplant and Renal Research at the Westmead Millennium Institute and Director of Transplant Medicine and the Clinical Islet Transplant Program at Westmead Hospital, said the research could also have wider medical implications.


Type 1 diabetes researcher Professor Phil O'Connell

“The project will bring us closer to achieving the goal of drug-free immunosuppression, which may benefit the recipients of other types of transplants,” he said.

The grant has been given by the Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Research Network (T1DCRN), an innovative clinical research program led by JDRF Australia, which brings together researchers, patients, industry and international networks to share a strong focus on patient benefit.

Professor O’Connell, who is also director of the Australian Clinical Islet Transplant Consortium, and led the Australian Islet Transplantation Program from 2005-2011, said clinical trials underway at Westmead Hospital and elsewhere since 2006 have proven the technique to be highly successful.

But so far its use has been limited to a small number of patients with so-called “brittle” diabetes.

“The current need for transplant recipients to take powerful drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent islet rejection means the technique has been reserved for people with life-threatening undetected hypoglycaemia and is not suitable for children or younger patients,” said Professor O’Connell.

“The average age of patients when they suffer the onset of type 1 diabetes is just 11 years, so if we could successfully use pancreatic islet transplantation in the young it would solve a significant problem.”

The T1DCRN is supported by the Australian Government through the Special Research Initiative for Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes, a $35 million grant funded by the Australian Research Council.

The funding is designed to plug an acknowledged gap between lab-based research and expensive clinical trials that prevents new type 1 diabetes treatments entering widespread use.

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic auto-immune disease affecting 120,000 Australians. It destroys the body’s insulin-producing cells, which normally prevent blood-sugar levels from becoming dangerously high.

For unknown reasons, the rate of type 1 diabetes is rising in advanced developed countries.

For further information or to arrange an interview, contact:


Mark Mathot

Marketing and Communications Manager

Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research

0403 052 522