MIAMI — Islet cell transplantation
is a major breakthrough in diabetes research. Three years after the procedure, one patient appears to be cured.
For 13 years, Rachel Harris battled type 1 diabetes.
"It was a life filled with chronic worry," Harris said. "I actually worried about my future and the repercussions of diabetes that were sure to follow."
After years of insulin shots, finger sticks and an insulin pump, her diabetes still was not under control.
According to Dr. Rodolfo Alejandro, of the Diabetes Research Institute, that could have had devastating consequences.
"They can go blind. They can lose their kidneys. They can lose their legs. So, it's really a very serious problem," Alejandro said.
Three years ago, Harris had an islet cell transplant. It is a procedure pioneered at the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami. She no longer takes insulin and her diabetes is nowhere in sight.
During the procedure, insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, called islet cells. are harvested from an organ donor. They are isolated and then injected into the transplant recipient's liver, where they function like a new pancreas.
There are some limitations. Alejandro says organ donors are rare and usable islet cells are scarce. They are now looking into other islet sources, like stem cells.
"We are looking at all avenues to make sure we can come up with a source of islets," he said.
Harris, who has been off insulin long enough to break the U.S. record, says the procedure not only changed her life, but probably saved it.
"It gave me a future back. It gave me my health back. It's like hitting the lottery," she said.