By Kelly Martínez
For almost three decades, Wendy Peacock had to give herself insulin injections in order to stay alive. But ever since last August 18 th, the day she underwent a revolutionary cell transplantation performed by doctors at UHealth (the University of Miami’s health system) and the Diabetes Research Institute (DRA), she is no longer dependent on insulin injections.
Diagnosed with diabetes type 1 at the age of 17, she had to monitor her blood sugar levels and watch her diet constantly. Her affliction became so serious that she lost sensitivity to symptoms pointing to a drop in her blood sugar levels, which put her life in danger.
Even though just a few days have passed since the surgery, this 43-year-old Texan appears to have reversed an autoimmune condition characterized by destruction of the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin –the hormone that regulates blood sugar– and affects 1.25 million people in the United States, including some 200,000 youths.
At a press conference held this week in Miami, where Wendy and her father were present, the doctors in charge of the operation explained details of the procedure: “We transplanted into Wendy’s body insulin-producing cells, attaching these to the omentum (an internal lining that covers the abdominal organs) by means of a simple laparoscopic procedure, and with the help of Trombin, the enzyme that affixes those cells so that they do not become detached, and so that they can be absorbed into the blood, the true innovation in this treatment.”
In charge of the transplantation were Camillo Ricordi and Rodolfo Alejandro –both researchers at the DRI and experts in cell transplantations– and surgeons Gaetano Ciancio and José Martínez, from Jackson Hospital.
The results appear to be very successful. “We had estimated that she’d be receiving insulin for one more month, but she’s shown us she doesn’t need it,” Dr. Alejandro explained.
“Going to sleep without worrying that my blood sugar levels might drop drastically I feel as if an enormous weight has been taken off my shoulders,” explains the patient, who works as a legal consultant, and is the mother of a son, Sean Paul, a five—-year-old boy she adopted when he was but a baby: “He is my reason for living,” she says joyfully.
Before the operation, both were living with Wendy’s parents, because her condition prevented her from taking care of herself. Now she plans to return to San Antonio, Texas to start over again.
Not depending on insulin will make everything easier and her daily routine will normalize. Even though she has been following a diet for 26 years and doesn’t know whether she should have some ice cream (a treat she had never been able to enjoy), doing so no longer means putting her health at risk. “I can go out jogging without having to worry about eating beforehand.”
When she talks about her family she can’t hold back the tears. “Without their help none of this would have been possible.” Her father travelled with her to Miami last August 16 th, two days before the operation she had been waiting for since February of last year, when she enrolled in the program to see if she was eligible.
Next year, Wendy will need to have checkups every quarter. Then a yearly checkup to evaluate the progress of her treatment, which has become part of one of the most innovative branches of medicine: biomedicine, which deals with cellular regeneration.
Six new patients will soon undergo this treatment, something that is drawing interest from a good number of hospitals and clinics around the world. Neither UHealth-Jackson nor the DRI are interested in having any exclusivity over the treatment. On the contrary, they would like to see this procedure become increasingly available elsewhere.
“The great challenge now is being able to develop, in the laboratory, insulin-producing cells, since we shouldn’t have to depend only on pancreas donations. That would certainly stand in the way of making the treatment readily available. We expect to perform 20 or 30 transplantations in the coming year,” Dr. Ricardi stated.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that for the year 2030 diabetes will be the seventh greatest cause of death in the world’s population, for which reason its prevention and cure are fundamental concerns for today’s medicine. The innovative proposal by the DRI and UHealth-Jackson represents a gigantic step forward in the fight to eradicate diabetes. For now, Wendy Peacock appears to have won the long battle against this illness, and now has the hope of enjoying life, together with her son and her family, and not have to depend on insulin.
Lea la historia en español aquí: Diabética tipo 1 le dice adiós a la insulina tras recibir trasplante de células.