For 50 years, Sigrun Schwendinger of Potomac, Md., coped with diabetes. She gave herself multiple insulin injections every day, tested her blood-sugar levels frequently and paid constant attention to her diet and exercise.
That changed in February 2014, when Schwendinger got the second of two infusions of insulin-producing pancreatic cells in an experimental procedure at the National Institutes of Health.
The process, developed by Canadian scientists and reported more than a decade ago, is finally being duplicated in medical centers around the world.
Before the procedure, Schwendinger had been unable to stabilize her blood-sugar level, no matter what she did. Now, it’s always on target. She no longer needs insulin shots because her body is producing the hormone. She eats what she wants, when she wants, and even has a glass of wine now and then.
She has some side effects from the immune-suppressing drugs she takes daily to keep her body from rejecting the transplanted cells, such as edema, high blood pressure, and a low white-bloodcell count. She says the trade-off is worth it.
“I’m one of the first pioneers,” says Schwendinger, diagnosed when she was 7. The procedure has “a long way to go and quite a bit of research has to be done, but I think it’s fantastic. All those years, that was my one prayer: ‘Please, God, take this disease away from me.’ “
Schwendinger and other pioneers who have undergone isletcell transplantation are in Washington, D.C., today to kick off the annual meeting of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and lobby Congress for funding to help find a cure for diabetes.
Juvenile diabetes, also called type 1, affects about 1 million Americans. Usually diagnosed by early adulthood, it results from the loss of insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas. Because their bodies produce little or no insulin, type 1 diabetics require daily injections to stay alive.
Robert Goldstein, chief scientific officer of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, says fewer than 80 people have undergone the process, in which doctors remove islet cells from cadavers and infuse them through a thin tube into recipients.
Usually, two pancreases are needed to harvest enough islet cells, and a lack of the donated organs is one reason more islet-cell transplantations have not occurred.
For people whose diabetes has caused complications, such as vision or hearing loss, or who can’t control wide swings in bloodsugar levels, “to be able to change the course of their disease is akin to a miracle,” Goldstein says.
But because transplant patients have to take drugs every day, the procedure isn’t for everyone. “This is not the ultimate answer,” Goldstein says…