A long-awaited treatment for patients with type 1 diabetes… After years of trials, islet transplants, finally approved by the world’s health authorities, have shown the potential to “change lives” of patients.
Valerie Rodriguez does not hide her satisfaction with the “revolutionary” results of this treatment. On October 24, this former banking trainer was one of the first patients in France who underwent a transplant of this kind in the framework of mainstream medical care (with the exception of a pilot project supervised by the Health Insurance Authority) at the Regional Hospital Center in Strasbourg (east).
Before the operation, Rodriguez tried all the suggested treatments to control her blood sugar level, without much success. “I was constantly living with a sword over my head,” the energetic 40-year-old told AFP.
“There is a fear of going into a coma because of the low blood sugar level: for example, if I had to eat large amounts of sugar while driving on the highway,” she added.
But she says she has “came back to life” since the operation. On the eve of World Diabetes Day on November 14, she explains, “I no longer witness such fluctuations in the level of sugar in the blood, the cases of physical fatigue have greatly decreased,” and “I feel lucky. This technology is amazing.”
This “technology” is based on a transplant in the pancreas of what is known as the islets of Langerhans, which are cells from the pancreas responsible for secreting insulin, after they were withdrawn from a non-diabetic donor in a state of clinical death.
While Valerie Rodriguez did not feel any negative side effects, she points out, however, that this surgical intervention, like all transplants, requires a lifelong treatment to avoid rejection of the transplanted organs or cells. In Rodriguez’s case, she has to take “seven drugs in the morning and six in the evening”. “In the face of frequent episodes of low blood sugar or fatigue, I definitely prefer to eat breakfast pills,” she says.
20 years of research
The first clinical trials of this treatment took place in 1999 in Canada, then in Europe, and lasted for about two decades. And in 2020, in France, the Supreme Health Authority gave its approval to adopt this practice with some patients who show “chronic instability.”
In December 2021, the regional hospital center in Lille, northern France, was the first French institution to perform a transplant of this kind as part of its routine operations, before the hospital in Strasbourg followed suit.
“It was very interesting,” Valerie Rodriguez recalls. “There were 15 people in the operating room. Everyone wanted to see what was going on.”
Lawrence Kessler, Professor of Diabetology at Strasbourg Hospital, member of the Francophone Diabetes Association, acknowledges that this new technology is for patients “a big step forward. For us doctors, this is the culmination of very high-level clinical research, multidisciplinary, a very strong recognition.”
The doctor, who studied in 1988 to obtain a master’s degree on pancreatic islets in rats, says that “at the level of the scientific process, following up studies in animals and then in humans, before moving to adopting (the experiment) as part of routine medical care, is very satisfying.”
This treatment is recommended annually to a few hundred patients, according to Lawrence Kessler, an almost negligible percentage out of 370,000 patients with type 1 diabetes, according to the French Federation of Diabetes Patients.
And the diabetes specialist stresses that “this number is limited, but it is essential because it is related to patients who cannot find any other therapeutic alternative,” and “we are still at the beginning: this treatment can be prescribed to other patients with whom treatment has failed, in cases of pancreatic diseases or cystic fibrosis.” For example.