A pilot study underway at the University of Alberta is using small implants filled with stem cells to regulate insulin in a handful of diabetic patients -- a technology that, if proven effective, could replace injections.

Five Edmonton patients are among 17 others involved in the trial, which is the world’s first experiment of the innovative new treatment.

And while the research is in its initial stages, one doctor involved in the research calls the early indicators “terribly exciting.”

“So far it’s been very safe and it looks like it’s working the way we hoped it would,” Dr. James Shapiro told CTV News.

Type 1 diabetes results when a person’s immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Patients with diabetes must regularly test their blood sugar levels and manually inject insulin to balance out their systems.

The testing and injection routine -- alongside dietary restrictions -- can be complicated and worrisome, which is why many patients are excited about the prospect of a self-releasing insulin implant.

The innovative new treatment involves implanting small plastic pouches filled with millions of insulin-producing cells under a patient’s skin. Blood vessels then grow around the implants, allowing the stem cells inside the pouch to release the necessary dose of insulin based on the patient’s blood sugar levels.

The technology has already proved effective on lab mice. Doctors are now testing whether the method is safe for humans.

For one Edmonton man involved in the study, the method offers hope. Chris Townsend, 38, says he watches his sugar levels and needs daily insulin injections and blood tests.

“It would be incredible. Like, just to be able to not worry anymore,” he said.

Townsend had eight of the plastic pouches implanted under his arms and abdomen at the University of Alberta Hospital in early March.

Early results from the study are expected within the next two years, with doctors aiming to expand the research across North America.

The Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) remains cautiously optimistic about the implant technology.

“Many technologies that look very promising in a mouse or a rat model don’t translate to the human sector,” said Jan Hux, chief science officer of the CDA. “So while this is extremely promising, we can’t be sure that this particular membrane and particular cell strain will be the solution.”

Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in childhood or adolescence. Doctors haven’t pinpointed an exact cause, but a number of genetic and environmental factors are believed to be related to the disease.

Left untreated, diabetes can lead to blindness, amputations, kidney failure and heart disease.

At least 300,000 Canadians live with Type 1 diabetes, according to CDA figures released in 2009.

With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip