Curing diabetes with kidney-pancreas transplant

(Photo: WUSA9)
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It's a disease that affects millions of Americans. Lifestyle changes are key to managing both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. But some patients with life-threatening complications from the disease are now dialysis and diabetes-free.

Marthea Ruzanic, 46, is excited about life and her new teaching assignment in Loudoun County Public Schools.

"I can't wait," Ruzanic said. "It'll be the first year I will ever have to go into school not being diabetic."

She was just out of college when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of Type 1 diabetes called Brittle Diabetes.

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"I have had an out of the blue heel fracture, cataract surgery. Probably 20 different laser surgeries because of diabetic retinopathy," Ruzanic said. "No feeling in my hands or feet., amputation of a toe."

In 2012 Ruzanic started dialysis with horrible side effects. A year later, she received a kidney transplant from a living donor, a friend she knew in college. No more dialysis, but Ruzanic still had diabetes.

Dr. Peter Abrams is a transplant surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

"In fact, due to the immuno-suppressants, the patients receive following the kidney transplant, the diabetes actually worsens," Dr. Abrams said.

To cure Ruzanic of diabetes, she needed a new pancreas to regulate her body's sugar levels. This past February her prayers were answered. She got that pancreas.

"So, before we even took the drape down she was cured of the diabetes. Her glucoses were normal and they've been that way ever since," Dr. Abrams said.

"The best thing was giving my doctors the insulin, saying, 'Give it to somebody else who can use it. I don't need it anymore. See ya!'" Ruzanic said.

This procedure is not for all Type 1 diabetics. Specifically those who have significant cardiac disease, a history of stroke, or are too frail. Type 2 diabetics may be eligible for the surgery, as long as they do not have severe insulin resistance.  

In many of these cases, the kidney and pancreas are transplanted at the same time. The benefit of this is time on the waiting list for both organs is three months, as opposed to 5 to 6 years for a kidney alone.