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Giving Pancreatitis Patients a Better Chance of Survival

Photo: Courtesy of UNC Health Care

For the first time in more than two years, 20-year-old Magnolia Long is craving food. It’s a huge milestone for the college student who, up until this February, had no appetite due to nausea and severe abdominal pain caused by pancreatic cystosis, a rare complication of cystic fibrosis.

“I always had this constant, dull pain in my stomach growing up,” Long recalls. “I went to the doctor, but we never got a diagnosis. I was used to it. But one day when I was a senior in high school, it got so bad that I just had to lie down and put ice packs on my stomach.”

Receiving the diagnosis

That was in July 2015 and Long’s pain was so severe that her mother took her to the emergency room. On a subsequent hospital visit, Long learned she had one of the worst cases of pancreatic cystosis with recurrent pancreatitis her doctors had ever seen.

In addition to the pain, the cysts in Long’s pancreas weren’t allowing it to function correctly, leading to nausea and vomiting that caused the young woman to lose weight. She learned there were few treatment options available to ease her suffering, and none of them were permanent. She began college, but every couple of months had to take time off for endoscopic procedures to temporarily ease her pain.

A new frontier

During this time, Long met Dr. Chirag S. Desai, who was starting a new transplant program at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, the only one of its kind in North Carolina. Long was a good candidate for the surgery because she was suffering from poor quality of life and required repeated hospitalizations. Despite her condition, her blood sugar control was near normal, indicating she would respond well to the procedure. In February 2018, she became the second patient of UNC’s chronic pancreatitis and autologous islet cell transplant program.

During the surgery, Dr. Desai removed Long’s pancreas, salvaged islet cells that secrete insulin and other critical hormones and infused those cells into her liver where they could function normally. Unlike most treatments for chronic and recurrent pancreatitis, this surgery provides permanent pain relief while also preventing patients from developing brittle diabetes — a severe form of insulin-dependent diabetes that is difficult to control.

“After receiving this surgery, patients have a significant improvement in their quality of life, along with a reduction in the negative effects of diabetes,” Dr. Desai says.

Long’s relief was so immediate that within three weeks of the surgery, she was back at school. She no longer depends on insulin and is back to her normal medication routine for cystic fibrosis. The procedure dramatically improved her quality of life and redefined her outlook on the future.

“I’m not in pain anymore, and it’s wonderful. Dr. Desai was great through the whole process. I know he genuinely cares about my well-being and did everything he could to get me feeling better,” Long says.

At UNC Medical Center, physicians are providing health-care solutions that exist at few other places. UNC is one of only a handful of institutions across the United States that offers islet-cell transplantation for patients suffering from pancreatitis.

“To have this cell transplant initiative here in North Carolina offers a new hope to people suffering from pancreatitis,” says Dr. Desai. “It also lays the groundwork for cell transplant therapy for a variety of diseases in the future.”

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