December 10, 2010 -- A world-first treatment for type 1 diabetes using insulin-producing cells grown in pigs has been approved for sale in Russia, and Australia is the "next big target country".
Professor Bob Elliott, who trained in Adelaide but now heads a laboratory in New Zealand, said two hospitals in Russia could begin offering the treatment next year once their training was complete.
The therapy would initially cost around $150,000 per patient, but "that will go down as we get an an economy of scale", he said, adding the treatment "makes a huge difference" to managing the condition.
Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition in which the pancreas stops making insulin, requiring a person to inject it several times a day while keeping a close eye on their blood glucose levels with regular finger-prick tests.
Prof Elliott's pioneering Diabecell treatment, from Living Cell Technologies Ltd, is the world's first xenotransplantation (animal to human) treatment approved for sale by a major industrialised country.
It takes insulin-producing cells from a special breed of pig and encases them, so they can be transplanted into humans without the need for immunosuppressant drugs.
Two patients who took part in a clinical trial were able to cease insulin injections altogether for eight months.
The treatment also rules out the risk of hypoglycaemia unawareness, a condition responsible for many diabetes-related deaths as blood glucose can drop quickly and not be detected until a person loses consciousness.
"This is not a cure for type 1 diabetes, but it will make it easier to control," Prof Elliott told AAP on Friday.
"Their diabetes becomes easier to control with fewer highs (in blood glucose), fewer lows, and if they have unaware hypoglycaemia we can pretty much guarantee to get rid of that.
"It makes a huge difference to their lives."
Prof Elliott said further clinical trials were under way in New Zealand, and the therapy may be available through NZ hospitals in 2013, when Australians could "fly across the ditch" to access it.
He also hopes to have it approved for use in Australia, saying it could reduce the high life-long cost of caring for people with the condition.
"It is a terribly costly disease, type 1 diabetes. Currently it costs the government are about a million dollars per patient for a lifetime of treatment," he said.
"About 90 per cent of that is from long-term complications, and if you can avert those you can save a lot of money - $100,000 for a transplant is peanuts if you can avert those costs."
Prof Elliott welcomed the recent lifting of Australia's moratorium on xenotransplantation.
"Australia has just lifted the moratorium on animal cell treatments about this time last year, but the regulatory pathway is not yet in place," he said.
"But, having said that, our next big target country is Australia."