Emory Islet Cell Transplant Patients Celebrate 10 Years of Freedom From Diabetes

March 2014

On March 13, Rob Allen, Laura Cochran, and the Emory Transplant Center (ETC) celebrated Mr. Allen and Ms. Cochran's 10th year of being diabetes free following a novel transplant of donor pancreatic islet cells. "I feel free. I feel normal," says Ms. Cochran.

Mr. Allen and Ms. Cochran suffered from severe Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas ceases to produce insulin, a hormone that allows people to get energy from food. Type 1 diabetics must take insulin every day to survive. Fortunately, Mr. Allen and Ms. Cochran were candidates for a clinical trial at Emory where donor pancreatic islet cells were being transplanted to restore insulin production in people with Type 1 diabetes.

"Through a small incision in the abdomen, we placed an IV into the vein going to the liver," says kidney and pancreas transplant surgeon Dr. Christian Larsen. "Then using a slow-drip method, we infused hundreds of thousands of donor islet cells into the patient. Those islets made their way from the liver to the pancreas to restore insulin production."

The two patients both received two transplants from two different organ donors over the course of several months. After the second transplant, they no longer needed daily insulin injections. They have been insulin-free since 2004.

"The best part about the islet cell transplants is not having to worry daily about my blood glucose levels getting out of control," says Mr. Allen. "It has been an amazing thing."

A total of 19 patients have received islet cell transplants in four different clinical trials at Emory. Researchers are awaiting FDA approval of islet cell transplants so the surgery will no longer be experimental. At that point, surgeons can perform these transplants on patients who meet criteria.

"Islet cell transplantation offers patients with debilitating Type 1 diabetes hope and freedom from fear," says Dr. Nicole Turgeon, director of ETC's clinical islet transplant program and Co-PI for Emory's islet transplant clinical trials. "We are very proud to be a part of the trials to obtain FDA approval so islet cell transplantation can be offered as standard of care."