For 38 years Susan Czernich lived with a severe form of debilitating Type 1 Diabetes. Her lifeline, an insulin pump to maintain her wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels and prevent potentially deadly hypo- glycaemic attacks.
“I was worried I wouldn't wake up. I didn't sleep very well in those days because of imminent fear that am I going to wake up tomorrow? Yeah so life was hard,” says Susan.
At 50 years of age Susan is only now able to enjoy life thanks to a miracle.
“I could never imagine what this would be like but it’s just, I know I’m not allowed to swear but, it’s frigging awesome,” exclaims Susan.
Just two years after taking part in a revolutionary transplant trial in which insulin-creating cells known as islets are taken from the Pancreas, Susan is cured of the disease.
“Awesome, it’s awesome to say that I am no longer a diabetic. It's like, just unbelievable, it’s unbelievable to get up every day and feel well. To not have to go to sleep at night and be worried that I am not going to wake up tomorrow. To get up and go to work and just be able to do it and feel well,” says Susan.
The trial has shown a cure in at least 50% of people that went into it. Pleasingly here in South Australia our record is better than that and 75% of the people that we’ve treated have experienced, in inverted comma’s, a cure or have come off insulin in the short term.
Associate Professor Toby Coates leads a highly skilled team at the Islet Transplantation Program at the University of Adelaide. There are two other centres in Melbourne and in Sydney.
“It is very much life-threatening. A subset of people with Type 1 Diabetes will get very severe complications where their blood sugars will go very, very high and then very, very low. And the very low blood sugars put those people at great risk. They can black out, become unconscious or even die suddenly, and that’s a very severe complication that thankfully only affects about 1% but when it’s there it’s very severe... When someone donates their organ after death, or donates their pancreas, the pancreas is then shipped from us here to, either to Melbourne or to Sydney, where the delicate islet cells which are about 1 percent of the Pancreas, are isolated and then sent back here for us to transplant into people who’ve got very severe Type 1 Diabetes,” says Professor Coates.
From that process, when do you start seeing results?
“Usually within about two weeks,” says Professor Coates.
Professor Coates says the pioneering technique will develop a new cell manufacturing industry and be a platform to treat many other ailments like Parkinsons and Heart Disease.
“Using cells to treat organ failure is the next step forward after transplanting organs. Just take the things that you need rather than transplant the whole organ,” says Professor Coates.
For now the major obstacle in expanding the treatment is obtaining enough islet cells for transplants from organ donors.
“These transplants are really only for the very severe form of Type 1 Diabetes and the reason for that is that the immuno-suppressive drugs are very unpleasant drugs and they have nasty side effects and for most people they’ll never need an islet transplant and likewise for most people with Type 2 Diabetes that can be managed with medication very, very easily,” says Professor Coates.
Eliza Bartlett is one of 140,000 Australians with Type 1 Diabetes which, after car accidents, is the next biggest killer of young people. She's lived with it since she was nine.
“It’s the worries of the future. It can cause so many things, like heart disease, kidney disease, amputation due to poor circulation, blindness, jus the list goes on so your obviously have to worry about your control now because what you do now is going to affect you in the future,” says Eliza.
Eliza is also hoping to be cured one day. She's done her bit for raising funds for research by walking from Adelaide to Melbourne in April. A feat that's seen her chosen as a finalist in the world's Insulin Independence Athletic Achievement Award.
I’ve got tendonitis in basically every tendon, I had sore knees, hips, hammies, basically everything you could think of was injured but I had so much determination to get there because I knew what I was doing was for the right reasons and for a good cause,” says Eliza.
“Government’s need to understand, from my perspective, they fund a whole lot of crap that is really, I think irrelevant when you look at how many people, just in Australia, have diabetes. Whether it’s Type 1 or Type 2, it’s not something we ask for I can assure you,” says Susan.
However Susan is thankful that it was federal funding in 2006 which has made a world of difference to her...and others.
It has been a really awesome journey. I just think I’m blessed, really blessed,” says Susan.