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Free from diabetes

Islet transplant recipients thriving a decade later
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Rob Allen

Rob Allen had brittle diabetes, meaning he'd had type 1 diabetes for so long that he lost the ability to sense when his glucose level was dangerously low.

He had no islets, the pancreatic cells that release insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels and allows people to get energy from food.

"Until you've been through an insulin reaction, you really can't appreciate it," says Allen, who was diagnosed at 17 after experiencing extreme weight loss, fatigue, and thirst.  As a hydrologic technician for the US Geological Survey, he was often alone in the woods checking water levels in wells. "Passing out was a huge concern," he says.

After decades of insulin injections, an insulin pump, occasional seizures, and his wife, Lisa, standing by with glucagon in case his levels dipped too low, Allen was desperate to try something new. He volunteered to receive an islet transplant as part of a clinical trial at Emory Transplant Center in 2004. He has been free of all symptoms of diabetes for a decade now. Allen and Laura Cochran, a mother of four from Columbus diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 27, were among the first to have islet transplants in Georgia. "I had several severe hypoglycemia incidents while I was with my children, and that was scary," Cochran says.

They received two islet cell transplants each, a few months apart, from deceased donors. Hundreds of thousands of donor islet cells were slow-dripped by an IV into the liver. After the transplants, Allen and Cochran's abilities to produce insulin naturally were restored.

"We transplanted just two teaspoons of islet cells into these patients 10 years ago, and they no longer need insulin injections," says Christian Larsen, transplant surgeon and dean of the School of Medicine. "Our work is about making this possible for others."

Nineteen patients have received islet cell transplants in four clinical trials at Emory. FDA approval of islet cell transplants would mean that the surgery would no longer be considered experimental. 

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