Retraining Organs to Stop Diabetes

CHARLESTON, S.C. Every morning, Robin Rabun counts her blessings. For more than a decade, she lived in constant pain.

"I'd been fighting with this for so many years, and I felt so, so bad and so, so sick," Rabun told Ivanhoe. "I can't even describe it to anybody, how bad you feel."

She was suffering from chronic pancreatitis.

"As time went on, it just progressively got worse to where I was taking pain medication 24/7."

When medication and surgery didn't work, her only option was removing her pancreas -- but that put her at risk for other complications.

"To remove the whole pancreas can be very debilitating, and patients can develop a very brittle form of diabetes," Katy Morgan, M.D., associate professor of surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, told Ivanhoe.

In an innovative procedure, surgeons removed Rabun's pancreas and brought it to a lab where they took out insulin-producing islet cells. They then transplanted those cells back into robin's liver. The goal -- her liver would start to function like a mini pancreas.

"Then they can make insulin for the patient so the patient has an easier to control form of diabetes, or perhaps even no diabetes at all," Dr. Morgan said.

Studies show after surgery, one-third of patients don't require any insulin.

"And the other two-thirds do have some islet function, and so they have a much easier to control form of diabetes," Dr. Morgan explained.

Today, Rabun is diabetes-free. She's dedicated to staying healthy and enjoying the next chapter of her life.

Alcohol use and gallstones cause most pancreatitis cases -- up to 90 percent, but the disease can also be inherited.

Heather Woolwine
Media Relations
Medical University of South Carolina

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