• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Islet cell transplant may cure Type 1 diabetes

April 6, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Twenty-five million men, women and children in the U.S. are diagnosed with diabetes. Another 7 million have it and don't even know it.

Reversing the most severe form diabetes, Type 1, is the ultimate goal for medical researchers.

There is no cure, but some patients in the U.S. may become the first to say they've had Type 1 diabetes and are now insulin-free.

It's Trahnel Mays' job to make sure everything is set and ready to go for surgery.

She's a transplant tech, and ironically, she is one of the first people in the county to receive an islet cell transplant to cure her Type 1 diabetes.

"I can't imagine not wearing an insulin pump," Mays said. "I can't grasp that fully."

The 43-year-old has been dealing with diabetes since she was 13.

Before her insulin pump, Mays was giving herself five shots a day.

But Mays is part of new research that is transplanting insulin-making islet cells. During a nine-hour process, surgeons dissect a donor pancreas, separate, purify and test the islet cells. Then, through an IV - not an operation - the cells are transplanted.

"The patient doesn't need the whole pancreas, only the cells, only the islet," said Ohio State University transplant surgeon Amer Rajab. "These cells, they constitute only 2 to 5 percent of the whole pancreas."

The patient still needs to take anti-rejection medicine. Success is measured if the patients can stop taking insulin altogether.

So far, the success rate is 65 percent compared to 80 percent for a full pancreas transplant.

Eight weeks after Mays' transplant, she's down from 70 units of insulin a day to 20, and she is set to go in for a second islet cell transplant.

A cure for her could be a cure for millions.

If the islet cell transplant fails, patients can opt to get a full pancreas transplant.

The future for islet cell transplantation is for surgeons to use cells from a pig or even create their own islet cells in the lab.