University of Minnesota celebrates 50 years of pancreatic transplants

Doctors from around the globe are descending on the University of Minnesota Friday evening to celebrate 50 years since the University of Minnesota performed the first pancreatic transplant. 

“Right here, I pat my little pancreas,” said Joanie Virdeen.”It's just amazing.”

In 2000, Virdeen received her pancreas transplant, and she hasn't had a drop of insulin since. At 35 years old, she was diagnosed with adult onset juvenile diabetes. The mother of an active family recalls having to stop everything to check her blood sugar levels every three hours around the clock for more than 10 years.

“It's a lifesaver,” said Virdeen. “It kept getting harder to drive, harder to be at work.”

Friday, Virdeen will be among those celebrating the world’s first pancreas transplant performed December 17, 1966 at the University of Minnesota.

“The initial results were not that stellar,” said Dr. Raja Kandaswamy of the U of M’s Department of Surgery. “There was a lot of challenges, infection, rejection, and so forth, so there was moratorium on transplants for a few years.”

Dr. Kandaswamy recalls by the late 70s the program was rebooted and since then over 50,000 patients, including Virdeen, have received pancreas transplants around the world. 30,000 of those surgeries were done in the United States, and close to 10 percent were performed by University of Minnesota surgeons. Success rates have risen to nearly 90 percent.

“We have remained leaders in transplants for a long time and we continue to  do so,” said Dr. Kandaswamy  “We are very proud of what  has been accomplished here.”

As Virdeen goes on with life, she's thankful for the new research underway, including transferring cells from animals and even artificial pancreas transplants. Virdeen and her husband hope through further medical advances even more type one diabetes patients can find the same renewed freedom she has.

“It was like someone took the world off my shoulders,” said Virdeen.

As ambassadors with Life Source, Virdeen and her husband remind as many people as they can pancreas transplant success would not be possible without organ donation.