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Post-transplant diabetes may be reversible: study

Feb. 20, 2020, 10:48 AM

Greg Poffenberger, MS, left, Chunhua Dai, MD, and John Walker led the study that found post-transplantation diabetes may be reversible. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

by Bill Snyder

Post-transplantation diabetes mellitus (PTDM), a common complication of immunosuppressive drugs that are given to prevent transplant rejection, may be reversible and at least partially preventable, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center report.

“We hope these findings can be translated into clinical research as these results suggest ways that diabetes associated with immunosuppressive drugs can be prevented or treated more effectively,” said Alvin Powers, MD, senior author of the paper published recently in Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI) Insight.

Patients who receive stem cell transplants that differ genetically from their own tissues and subsequently develop PTDM have worse outcomes. Depending on the type of transplant and immunosuppressive drugs used, post-transplant diabetes may occur in as many as one-third of patients. Some will require insulin treatment.

“As a transplant physician, I like to fix problems, not cause a new one like PTDM,” said Brian Engelhardt, MD, MSCI, associate professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at Vanderbilt. “This exciting research points the way for future treatments to prevent or reverse this complication.”

The cause of PTDM is unknown, but reduced insulin secretion is thought to be a major factor.

To determine how immunosuppression affects insulin secretion by beta cells in pancreatic islets, the researchers transplanted human islets into immunodeficient mice and treated the animals with two commonly used immunosuppressive drugs, tacrolimus (TAC) and sirolimus (SIR). Both drugs have been associated with PTDM.

The drugs had negative effects on human islet grafts that could contribute to development of diabetes. TAC and SIR led to impaired insulin processing and insulin secretion as well as reduced beta cell granules, increased macrophages and increased formation of amyloid deposits in the human islet grafts.

To determine if these effects were permanent, the researchers withdrew immunosuppressive treatment and found that beta cell function returned to normal.

When they co-administered Exendin-4, a glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonist used clinically in patients with Type 2 diabetes, they found it blocked TAC-induced beta cell dysfunction and partially ameliorated the effects of SIR. This indicated that the drugs’ effects on beta cells can be prevented.

The paper’s first authors are Chunhua Dai, MD, research associate professor of Medicine, and John Walker, an MD/PhD student in Vanderbilt’s Medical Scientist Training Program. Senior Research Specialist Greg Poffenberger, MS, performed the transplantation studies.

Powers, the Joe C. Davis Professor of Biomedical Science, professor of Medicine and of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, directs the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center and the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center and is chief of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism.

The study was made possible by the Integrated Islet Distribution Program supported by the National Institute of Diabetes, and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and by grants from the NIDDK, the JDRF, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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