Last week, Cochran, along with the Emory Transplant Center team and fellow patient Rob Allen, gathered to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their participation in a clinical trial for their severe Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is 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 live.
Both Cochran and Allen were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as young adults. Allen’s diabetes was controlled with insulin injections for about 10 years until his episodes of low blood sugar became more frequent and more severe. As for Cochran, as her diabetes progressed, she developed hypoglycemia unawareness, where her blood sugar would drop so low so quickly, that she didn’t recognize how low her sugars were. She often became dazed during these episodes and had to be watched at all times. While both benefitted some from insulin pumps, they still needed more relief. Fortunately, they were candidates for a clinical trial at Emory where donor pancreatic islet cells were transplanted to restore insulin production in people with Type 1 diabetes.
Cochran and Allen each received two islet cell transplants from two different organ donors, several months apart. After the first transplant, they both still needed small amounts of insulin injections. After the second transplant, neither Cochran nor Allen needed insulin injections. Both have been insulin free since 2004.
“We transplanted just two teaspoons of islet cells into these patients 10 years ago, and they no longer need insulin injections,” says Christian Larsen, MD, DPhil, professor of surgery in the Division of Transplantation at Emory, and dean of Emory University School of Medicine. “This has been a miraculous transformation.”
Researchers are awaiting FDA approval of islet cell transplants so that the surgery will no longer be experimental. Once approval is obtained, surgeons can perform these transplants on patients who meet the criteria.
“The best part about the islet cell transplants is not having to worry daily about my blood glucose levels getting out of control,” says Allen. “It has been an amazing thing.”