On Thursday the New Zealand-based Living Cell Technologies began giving type 1 diabetes patients a pig cell treatment, which promises to suppress disease symptoms.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), roughly 18 million people suffer from the disease, which is characterized by an inability of the body to produce insulin. This failure stems from destruction of islet cells—cells that reside in the pancreas and produce insulin—by a misdirected immune attack.

The company is harvesting islet cells from neo-natal pigs, encapsulating them in an algae-derived gum that protects the pig cells from being rejected by the person’s immune system. Studies on 10 subjects are currently underway in Russia, and now eight patients will be given the product, called Diabecell, in the New Zealand studies.

“This is a totally new way of treating diabetes, and it is aimed essentially at normalizing blood glucose levels so that people with diabetes can live as normal of life as possible,” Paul Tan, CEO of the company, told the New Zealand based Prime News, in a video posted on the company's Web site.

Some scientists argue that the technique is risky, because it allows the potential for viruses and other infections to cross species. But the company claims to have new pig-breeding facilities that are pathogen-free, so that pigs will not come into contact with infectious organisms.

Martin Wilkinson, past chairman of the New Zealand Bioethics Council, told Ray Lilley of the Associated Press that the risk of such a crossover is “very small” and “low enough to be managed by human recipients.”

Clinical trials for the product actually started 13 years earlier, but the New Zealand government quickly put it on hold while a bioethics council investigated, eventually giving consent earlier this year.  One patient who got injected in that early attempt, Michael Heyler, appears to be doing well; the pig cells were still making insulin in his body, according to his interview with Prime News.

To date there have been very few examples of such successful xenotransplantation, the transfer of tissue between species. If Diabecell continues to prove effective, the company hopes to have it on the market in three years at a cost of $100,000 per patient.

Image of baby pigs by Xirzon via flickr