December 5, 2014

Pancreas 2.0

I am fortunate to have been SICK enough to be eligible for a pancreas transplant, BUT the surgery itself and the life-long immunosuppressive therapy I will have to undergo to keep my body from rejecting the foreign organ, were huge risks to my very being.In fact, there was a 10 % mortality rate in the surgery, and each day I use immunosuppressive therapy puts me at a greater risk for cancer or serious infections.This was evidenced by my recent fight against sepsis after contracting salmonella while on vacation in the Dominican Republic.

While the surgery I underwent was dangerous and the immunosuppressive therapy holds risks, it was well worth the struggle, compared to the risks of not having the surgery. Without surgery, my Type 1 Diabetes placed me at a risk of not waking up from a normal night’s sleep, passing out while driving my car, exercising, or just walking on the beach…

I had so called “hypoglycemic unawareness”, a condition which often happens after many years with diabetes, and makes the person vulnerable to lows in sugar because they cannot feel the warning signs. I also had late-stage complications of diabetes, including kidney failure and eye disease, requiring a kidney transplant to survive, and multiple surgeries to prevent blindness. Due to my life-saving kidney transplant, I was already on immunosuppressive therapy, making the decision to go forward with the pancreas transplant easier.

I am a so-called beta version of the Cure – this means that my treatment, the pancreas transplant, was experimental and not applicable for everyone. But the outcome has been incredible and I can now convey to others how they would feel if they could experience perfect pancreatic function back. The more advanced version of this treatment may involve the use of beta cells that are infused through the liver, but it would still require immunosuppressive treatment.

Though complicated, at least this form of treatment would not pose the risks surgery entails. In my mind, the 2.0 version is cells that are grown in abundance in vitro, expanding the supply. However, these cells need to be protected against the immune system and not require the person to use immunosuppressive drugs. Companies such as JNJ and San Diego based Viacyte are working on this technology. Just recently, a fantastic scientist from Harvard took a big step forward. Dr Doug Melton is a Father of two children with Type 1 Diabetes. He changed his scientific path and dedicated his life to finding a cure. Now, he may be onto something. He has developed a way to grow embryonic stem cells in culture into insulin-producing beta cells that can be infused back into the person needing them. Check out his work here.

My current life without insulin injections, fears of going low, or having late-stage complications proves that it is worth the effort and money to bring Dr. Melton’s science to the market and allow for all people with diabetes to live normally and freely.