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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scientists Hope Pigs Will Cure Diabetes

Scientists are turning to pigs for help in defeating diabetes with a treatment being tested at Moscow's Sklifosovsky Institute.

Doctors at the institute in central Moscow last week injected pig cells into diabetic patients in the clinical trial of a treatment developed by Australian company Living Cell Technologies.

"It is the first [treatment] of it's kind," Living Cell head Paul Tan said by telephone from Auckland, New Zealand. "It's radical because it doesn't just give the body insulin, it gives the body the mechanism to produce insulin."

The pig cells are injected into the patient's abdomen and manufacture insulin according to the demand of the patient's body, thus eliminating the need for insulin injections, Tan said.

The Russian doctor overseeing the clinical trial contacted Life Cell through a third party, and Russian sponsors agreed to provide funding, Tan said.

The transplant was the second in the clinical trial, in which a total of 14 patients are to receive the pig cell transplants. The first transplant was conducted in April, and that recipient "is doing remarkably well," Tan said.

Capsules roughly the size of a pinhead are inserted into the patient's abdomen. The capsules have an insulin-producing cell extracted from a pig and are coated with a porous gel.

"The gel blocks the natural response of the body's immune system to attack the transplanted cells," Tan said. The operation takes approximately an hour but varies from patient to patient, the doctor overseeing the clinical trial said. The doctor declined to give his name, citing the sensitivity of his research.

New Zealand health officials blocked trials of the treatment in 1996, citing concerns that pig cells could introduce swine diseases into humans, but the company was given the go-ahead earlier this year to resume trials.

One of the toughest criteria was obtaining a bio-certified pig, Tan said. Luckily for the company, a colony of abandoned feral pigs was found on Auckland Island -- between Antarctica and New Zealand -- that, because of their isolation, were believed to be the most disease-free pig population in the world, Tan said.

There are believed to be 400 to 800 feral pigs living on Auckland Island, descendants of pigs left there in the late-1800s by passing ships as food for castaways, New Zealand newspaper The Press reported.

Garry Deed, president of Diabetes Australia, said children would benefit most should the trial succeed.

"They suffer the most from insulin injections," Deed said in a telephone interview. "However, it is still very early."

Russia is a lucrative country for clinical drug trials because costs are low compared with Western countries, and patients are more willing to participate. But there has been controversy recently over the ethics of drug trials.

Volgograd prosecutors opened a criminal investigation in February after complaints that a local clinic was administering a vaccine made by British pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline on their babies without telling them it was part of a clinical trial.