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The Eyes Have It

A collaborative clinical trial takes a visionary look at treating type 1 diabetes
Illustration of surgeon interacting with puzzle of human eye


esearchers at the Miller School are taking an innovative approach to restoring insulin production in people with type 1 diabetes. Led by Midhat Abdulreda, M.S, Ph.D., associate professor of surgery at the Diabetes Research Institute, a first-of-its-kind pilot clinical trial aims to transplant pancreatic islet cells into the eye — an immune-privileged site that doesn’t provoke an inflammatory response. This new “intraocular transplant” partnership with Bascom Palmer Eye Institute could eventually lead to better outcomes for patients around the world.

“Our team is constantly looking for new approaches to help our patients and find a lasting treatment for this autoimmune disease,” said Dr. Abdulreda, who is collaborating with Sonia Yoo, M.D., professor of ophthalmology and the Greentree Hickman Chair in Ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer, the Miller School’s Department of Ophthalmology.

Currently, people with type 1 diabetes face a lifetime of daily insulin injections unless pancreatic islet cells can be successfully transplanted to the liver — a procedure that typically requires long-term immunosuppression medications.

Over the past decade, Dr. Abdulreda has conducted extensive preclinical studies in his laboratory to determine how if intraocular transplants can be effective in reversing or curing diabetes. “First, we considered implanting a capsule with the islet cells to avoid interfering with other functions of the eye,” he said. “But we learned from our experimental models that clusters of the islet cells can be infused safely in a free-flowing manner into the front part of the eye. Our results were very promising and opened the door to this pilot clinical trial.”

“If this therapy is successful, we can affect eye disease, neuropathy, blood vessel disorders and other conditions,” Dr. Yoo said. “It’s an exciting approach for treating type 1 diabetes.”