A procedure recently done by an MUHC surgical team for the first time in Quebec could spell the end of insulin injections for patients suffering from type I diabetes.

The treatment is called an islet cell transplant, and involves replacing cells in a patient’s pancreas with those from a donor.

The cells in a type I diabetic’s pancreas don’t produce insulin, the hormone that regulates the body’s blood sugar. Sufferers are at risk of eye diseases, heart disease, strokes and other medical ailments.

The procedure carries much fewer risks than a full pancreas transplant, said Steven Paraskevas, director of the islet transplant program and laboratory at the MUHC.

“Unfortunately, a pancreas transplant is a complicated procedure and about 10 per cent of the time it doesn’t work and the pancreas is lost in the first few days,”  he said. “When it works, it works well. But this alternative is a way of providing the cells without surgery and without the risk of all these complications.”

Paraskevas warned that the procedure is still in its developmental stage. Ten medical centres in North America currently offer the procedure, including hospitals in Edmonton and Vancouver.

The MUHC team contributed a new innovation to the procedure in the form of a cooler-like device that oxygenates the cells which they believe keeps them in a better state and allows them do just a single infusion instead of several.

“We were really thrilled to see that after one infusion, we put our patient on a few weeks of protective insulin to give the islets a rest while they were recovering from their journey and we were really excited that after a month, when we stopped her insulin, her sugars have remained entirely normal,” said Paraskevas.

The treatment’s benefits could last between five and 10 years.

Patient Zohra Nabbus said she was a little scared the first time when she stopped taking her insulin injections.

“My life completely changed after this procedure,” she said. “I feel like I’m a normal person now, as healthy as any other person.”