“It’s getting to the point where I wonder if I’ll wake up in the morning,” says Ty Cucarola, 29. He has lived with type 1 diabetes for more than a decade. “I’ve probably had more than 10, 12 episodes of going to the hospital because of my sugar going low.”

Heart of the matter

Cucarola suffers from hypoglycemic unawareness, a complication of diabetes in which patients are unable to sense that their blood glucose is dropping to dangerously low levels. People with hypoglycemic unawareness often become disoriented, lose consciousness or go into convulsions. It may even lead to death.

"Currently, islet cells are infused into the liver. But the liver is not an ideal home and many of the cells don’t survive."

Over the last few years, Cucarola has passed out at work, in hotels while traveling and even on the golf course. He has woken up in emergency rooms or to paramedics giving him glucagon injections to quickly raise his blood sugar.

Infusing hope

He knew something had to change—and now it just might. Cucarola has been selected as a candidate for a clinical islet cell transplantation trial that will test a new implant site in the body called the omentum, the inside lining of the abdomen.

Currently, islet cells are infused into the liver. Patients who have received islet cell transplants have become insulin independent, some for more than 10 years. But the liver is not an ideal home and many of the cells don’t survive. Researchers believe that the omentum has benefits to help the cells thrive long-term.

It may also be an optimal location for a DRI BioHub, a bioengineered mini organ that mimics the native pancreas. Unlike mechanical devices that are used to manage the disease, the BioHub is a biological solution for restoring natural insulin production. This clinical trial is an important first step toward its development.

Looking forward

“Our main goal is to show, for the first time, that islet cells work when they are placed in the omentum, and most importantly, that it is safe for patients,” said Dr. Rodolfo Alejandro, director of clinical cell transplantation for the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami: where the clinical trial is taking place.

Cucarola has high hopes that he will be able to discontinue insulin therapy and no longer need to worry about hypoglycemia.

“This may be an opportunity for me to change my life. I can’t continue to live like this, because one day I’m not going to wake up.”