A molecule found in Arctic fish could lead to improvements in islet cell transplantation for people with type 1 diabetes, according to Canadian research.

Islet cell transplantation involves replacing dead beta cells with cells that have been harvested from donors. Patients with type 1 diabetes can be free from insulin injections following the procedure, but still need to take immunosuppressant drugs to stop the foreign islet cells being rejected by the pancreas.

Anti-aging glycopeptides (AAGP) are molecules found in fish. They enable fish to resume their lifecycle in the spring after being frozen in the winter.

AAGP have been developed by Protokinetix – a Canadian biotechnology company – for medical use, and the University of Alberta’s (UA) Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry investigated their effects in islet cell transplantation.

The researchers found that by soaking islet cells in AAGP for a hour and washing it off before transplantation, the islets were protected from tacrolimus, an antirejection drug which is toxic to islets.

According to lead author James Shapiro, Canada Research Chair in Transplant Surgery and Regenerative Medicine at UA, human islets normally fail to release insulin when exposed to tacrolimus in the petri dish.

Shaprio said: “When we add the AAGP and wash it all off, the cells work perfectly normally, and are protected in a remarkably durable manner. We find we need far fewer cells to treat diabetes in our preclinical models than we would normally.

“Just a one hour soak in AAGP is enough to protect the islet cells for up to a month or two afterwards. It has a very potent and profound effect.”

Shapiro added that more people with type 1 diabetes could receive islet cell transplantation if AAGP can increase the number of cells surviving the procedure. If human trials validate the efficacy of AAGP, it could represent a significant step in treating type 1 diabetes through islet cell transplantation.

The findings were published in the online journal Diabetes.