First pancreatic islet cell transplant in Alabama

A lifelong dependency on insulin shots and pumps may be over for a 24-year old Troy, Alabama, woman who is the first in the state to receive a pancreatic islet cell transplant. Within 24 hours after the procedure, performed at UAB Hospital on April 15, her new cells were beginning to function, doctors said.

Valerie Hendrix is a type I diabetic whose own pancreas has not produced insulin for most of her life. To control her blood-sugar levels, she has been totally dependent on insulin shots or an insulin infusion pump since the age of two.

The pancreas from which the islet cells were obtained came from a middle-aged man who died in a work-related accident, and his family agreed to donate multiple organs for transplant, according to the Alabama Organ Center.

Dr. Devin Eckhoff, the surgeon who directs the UAB division of transplantation, infused the processed pancreas cells into the portal vein of Hendrix’s liver via a catheter placed by Dr. Souheil Saddekni, chief of interventional radiology. The infusion of the pancreatic islet cells, suspended in approximately a pint of fluid, took about 40 minutes. The patient was monitored in a special care nursing unit for about two hours before being returned to her hospital room. Now listed in good condition, she is expected to remain in the hospital for several more days.

The transplant, one of several the doctors hope to perform under a clinical research protocol, marks the end of a long period of preparation at UAB, and the beginning of hope that the procedure will be a cure for a number of diabetics whose blood sugar levels are difficult to control. In November, UAB announced a major initiative to raise funds to combat the diabetes epidemic in Alabama and the nation. At that time Eckhoff noted that the university was ready to start islet cell transplantation as soon as potential recipients could be evaluated and an appropriate pancreas could be obtained by the Alabama Organ Center.

“We are very excited to be starting transplantation of islet cells,” Eckhoff said. “We have devoted significant effort to develop the infrastructure for processing the donor organ to isolate the islet cells responsible for producing insulin. In this first opportunity, our laboratory was able to obtain a large volume of these specialized cells over a 12-hour period of processing, which increases the patient’s opportunity for being totally cured and not needing any insulin shots anymore — perhaps ever.”

Hendrix received approximately 720,000 islet cells, enough to cure her diabetes if all of the islets were to function. “Our specialized laboratory, through a highly technical process, treats these cells in a way to optimize their ability to survive and set up residence in the liver. We have continued to give a small amount of insulin to Ms. Hendrix so that the transplanted islet cells won’t have the full burden of producing insulin in the immediate post-transplant period.”

She had no complications from the procedure itself, he said.

Hendrix, a graduate student in public administration at Troy State University, was referred to the UAB islet cell transplantation program by Montgomery endocrinologist Dr. Neil Schaffner.

“It’s exciting to think that I may not have to take insulin,” she said, “but whatever happens I am glad to have the opportunity to participate in this research that will eventually help other people who have diabetes.”

She has leaned heavily on her mother, Gwen Bean, in dealing with her diabetes. “I live at home and my mom knows what to cook for me,” she said, adding that a life of non-sugar sodas and food is just a way of life after so many years. She has three sisters, including one who also has diabetes.

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