Ambitious Goals for a Novel Procedure

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While the Chicago Diabetes Project (CDP) has thus far only performed islet cell transplants on a smaller subset of type 1 patients in clinical trials, their ultimate goal is to one day offer the transplant for everyone with diabetes—including type 2s. Jose Oberholzer, MD, director of the CDP, explains why this goal is possible, and how he intends to get there.

An older man is walking down the beach and comes upon a young man collecting starfishes that a storm has stranded on the beach. Seeing the ones that are still alive, the young man throws them back into the ocean. The older man asks the young man, “what are you doing? There are so few starfishes that you can save.”

The young man bends down and picks up a living starfish and throws it back into the ocean, and he says, “it made a difference to this one.” This story came attached to a piece of crystal that is in Dr. Jose Oberholzer’s office and was given to him by one of his islet cell transplant patients. The patient—a long-time type 1 who became insulin-independent shortly after receiving a transplant—inscribed on the crystal, “Thanks for everything, starfish number 62.”

This story serves as a medical parable encapsulating both the hope and negativity surrounding islet cell transplantation. For people who have had a transplant, it has been life-transforming for a majority of them. On the other hand, there has been negative criticism coming from within the medical community that these transplants have served very few people and come attached with challenges like having to take a regimen of immunosuppression drugs. The procedure also still needs to be FDA-approved—some have speculated that might be coming in the next year or so.