Research Group

  • Dr. Peter Cowan, Principal Investigator
  • Prof. Anthony d'Apice, Co-Investigator


  • St. Vincent's Hospital Melbourne, Fitzroy, Australia


  • Promoting the Growth of New Blood Vessels to Improve the Survival of Pancreatic Islet Grafts

Diabetes is a major health problem affecting millions of people worldwide. It is caused by the failure of the body’s insulin-producing cells, the pancreatic islets. Although diabetes can be treated by regular insulin injections, long-term treatment can lead to many debilitating side effects including blindness, kidney failure and loss of limbs. A much better treatment option is to cure diabetes by transplanting islets from a human donor. However, there is a severe shortage of all donated human organs and cells, including islets. Transplantation of pig islets would eliminate the shortage overnight, because pig insulin works well in human patients, but there are several obstacles to overcome before pig-to-human islet transplantation becomes a medical possibility.

One problem is that islets need to ‘grow’ a new blood supply after they are transplanted into a new host. This is a slow process, and many of the transplanted islets die in the meantime because they are starved of oxygen and nutrients. Fortunately, it is possible to introduce genetic modifications into the donor pig to help overcome problems of this type. The aim of this project is to make the transplanted islets produce factors that accelerate growth of the new blood supply and therefore reduce the number of cells dying from starvation. The factors are vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF-A) and angiopoietin-1 (Ang-1). A potential additional benefit of expressing VEGF-A in transgenic pigs is that it may increase the yield of islets harvested from each pig.

If successful, this strategy will move pig-to-human islet transplantation one step closer to practice.