Allegheny Health Network Unveils State’s Most Comprehensive Islet Cell Isolation Lab

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Allegheny Health Network (AHN) today unveiled a groundbreaking new facility that provides clinicians and researchers at its nationally recognized Institute of Cellular Therapeutics with unique capabilities for pioneering research and the treatment of patients who suffer from chronic pancreatic diseases, including pancreatitis and type 1 diabetes.

The opening of this highly advanced Islet Cell Isolation Laboratory allows us to further extend the reach of our expertise to patients and medical centers across the country.

Allegheny Health Network (AHN) today unveiled a groundbreaking new facility that provides clinicians and researchers at its nationally recognized Institute of Cellular Therapeutics with unique capabilities for pioneering research and the treatment of patients who suffer from chronic pancreatic diseases, including pancreatitis and type 1 diabetes.

Located at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH), the Network’s new Islet Cell Isolation Laboratory is the most comprehensive lab of its kind in Pennsylvania and one of just a few in the nation that supports an innovative therapy in which islet cells, such as those that produce insulin, are extracted from a donor pancreas or the patient’s own removed organ and transplanted back into the body.

Led by Massimo Trucco, MD, Director of AHN’s Institute of Cellular Therapeutics and an internationally preeminent diabetes researcher, the AHN team prepares islet cells for transplant into critically ill patients being cared for at some of the nation’s foremost medical centers, including the Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, AHN supplies research donor islets to Mt. Sinai Hospital and the medical centers at Stanford and Vanderbilt universities, and the universities of Pennsylvania, Miami and San Francisco, among others.

“We have some of the leading researchers in the country working at our Institute,” said Dr. Trucco. “The opening of this highly advanced Islet Cell Isolation Laboratory allows us to further extend the reach of our expertise to patients and medical centers across the country.”

Pancreatic islets are tiny clusters of cells scattered throughout the pancreas. Included among these islets are beta cells, which produce the hormone insulin that helps the body absorb glucose from the bloodstream and use it for energy. Diabetes develops when the pancreas does not make enough insulin, the body’s cells do not effectively use insulin, or a combination of both. Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that occurs over many years and, in severe cases, can be life-threatening.

Working with chronic pancreatitis patients who have reached a critical stage of their disease, AHN’s lab is exclusively capable of preparing islets both from healthy deceased donor organs as well as from so-called marginal donors, such as type 1 and type 2 diabetics and people with cystic fibrosis. The AHN team is the only one in the U.S. able to reliably isolate islets from type 1 diabetics, Dr. Trucco said.

In addition to preparing islets from donor organs, AHN collaborates with the Cleveland Clinic to perform an innovative auto-transplant procedure on patients with chronic pancreatitis.

“Doctors in Cleveland remove the pancreas from the patient and deliver it to our Institute. When we get these organs, they are often so diseased that it’s almost hard to recognize them,” said Rita Bottino, PhD, from AHN’s Institute of Cellular Therapeutics. “We sometimes have to be a little creative in finding a way to inject enzymes into the organ that will break the matrix that holds the cells together.

“By injecting enzymes, clusters of cells or single cells will be released from the organ – and those are the kind of insulin-producing cells that we ultimately want to transplant back to the patient,” Dr. Bottino continued. “We then bag those cells in a solution and send them back to Cleveland, approximately 4-5 hours later, where they are infused into the patient.”

It’s a cluster of cells that provides new hope for very sick patients.

“The number of islets we can obtain from the pancreas and inject back into the patient is the factor that predicts, more than anything, whether that patient’s dependency on insulin injections is eliminated or greatly minimized,” said Dr. Bottino. “The more islets you can give back to the patient, the better their outcome is going to be.”

Of the more than 100 auto-transplant procedures performed by members of AHN’s team, approximately 70 percent of the patients have had an improved level of insulin production after being injected with the islets.

AHN is planning for a day soon when life-saving islet cells only need to be transported a few floors away at AGH, rather than via the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, to get back to a waiting patient.

“Our ultimate goal is to start offering the pancreatic auto-transplant procedure right here at Allegheny General,” said Ngoc Thai, MD, Director of AHN’s Center for Abdominal Transplantation. “Having the world’s foremost experts in this highly specialized field at our institution affords an extraordinary opportunity to build an internationally leading program.”

AHN’s work with islets from type 1 diabetic donors, in particular, places it in a company of one.

“Previously, it was taboo to try to isolate cells from a type 1 diabetic donor because, by definition, the cells are dead,” said Dr. Trucco. “But working together with Vanderbilt University and the University of Florida, we have found that you can, in fact, isolate and retrieve insulin-producing cells from these organs. It’s a revolutionary discovery that promises to greatly increase the number of patients who benefit from this technique.”

In addition to Dr. Trucco and Dr. Bottino, AHN’s Islet Cell Isolation Lab team includes Suzanne Bertera, PhD; Carmela Knoll and Michael Knoll.

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About Allegheny Health Network
Allegheny Health Network, part of Highmark Health, is an integrated healthcare delivery system serving the Western Pennsylvania region. The Network composes eight hospitals, including its flagship academic medical center Allegheny General Hospital, Allegheny Valley Hospital, Canonsburg Hospital, Forbes Hospital, Jefferson Hospital, Saint Vincent Hospital, Westfield Memorial Hospital and West Penn Hospital; a research institute; Health + Wellness Pavilions; an employed physician organization, home and community based health services and a group purchasing organization. The Network employs approximately 17,500 people and has more than 2,100 physicians on its medical staff. The Network also serves as a clinical campus for Temple University School of Medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine and the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

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Doug Braunsdorf
Allegheny Health Network
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