Pancreas transplant surgery best hope for brittle diabetic patients

More than 29 million people are living with diabetes, with nearly 1.5 million new cases diagnosed each year. This devastating disease causes a range of secondary complications including blindness, kidney disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The only treatment option that can effectively halt these complications is a pancreas transplant. To combat the diabetes epidemic, Upstate University Hospital reinstated its pancreas transplant program and recently performed its first pancreas transplant since 2005.

“Diabetes causes a great deal of damage to the body, especially for patients who experience big swings in blood sugar and require large amounts of insulin. Transplant is the best option for these brittle diabetics, and those with underlying kidney disease,” explained Rainer Gruessner, MD, chief, Transplant Surgery Program, Upstate Medical University. “It’s been found that five out of six pancreas transplants are an effective treatment for diabetes within one year.”

Patrick Nolan, 52, lived with diabetes for 41 years prior to receiving the first pancreas transplant at Upstate since the launch of the new program. The Syracuse native was diagnosed May 5, 1975 and remembers spending his 11th birthday at Upstate University Hospital. For all of that time, he has had to routinely check his blood sugar and inject insulin up to six times per day. He learned to administer his own medication in his first year of diagnosis so that he wouldn’t have to miss out on sleepovers at his grandparents’ home.  “They weren’t able to inject it, so I learned to do it myself so I could go,” Nolan said.

In type 1 diabetics, the pancreas does not produce insulin. In type 2 diabetics, the pancreas makes insulin, but the body does not respond to it. When a diabetic receives a new kidney, as Nolan did in December 2015, it solves the kidney disease problem but does not change or treat the primary illness—diabetes. The pancreas transplant directly impacts this. Nolan’s surgeon, Mark Laftavi, MD, director of the Pancreas Transplant Program at Upstate, is optimistic that some of the secondary complications Nolan experiences as a result of his diabetes will dissipate in the weeks and months following transplant.  “Despite good advancement of insulin therapy and diabetes complications being less prevalent, diabetes will continue damaging patient’s organs,” Laftavi said. “The only therapy of diabetes shown to stop these complications is the pancreas transplant.”

To learn more about transplant surgery at Upstate, or to learn how you can join the organ donor registry, call 877-464-5540 toll free or visit Transplant.

Caption: Visiting with Upstate University Hospital patient Patrick Nolan are from left: Melanie Hundt, a third-year medical student at Upstate; Rainer Gruessner, MD, division chief of transplant services; Nolan; Mark Reza Laftavi, MD, director of the Pancreas Transplant Program; and Joshua Borsook, MD, Department of Surgery.

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