Doctors in Edmonton have set a world record for performing a treatment that helps diabetes patients.

Alberta Health Services says more islet transplant procedures are performed at the University of Alberta Hospital than anywhere else in the world.

Last year, doctors performed 66 islet transplants, with 61 of those for diabetic patients.

Officials say that number is nearly double what was performed the previous year and 10 times more than any other facility in the world.

“We’ve never achieved numbers like that before,” said Dr. James Shapiro, director of the Clinical Islet Transplant program. “It’s a record year.”

The procedure, dubbed the ‘Edmonton Protocol,’ helps Type 1 diabetics control their blood sugar levels without daily insulin injections.

Seventy-year-old Dave Drager had his islet transplant three years ago.

Drager was first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 38.

Nearly 30 years later he required five insulin shots a day and suffered from severe hypoglycemia episodes that resulted in two comas.

Drager says the islet transplant changed his life.

"It was a miracle"

He’ll never forget the day he climbed a volcano in Hawaii after undergoing the procedure.

“I climbed it pretty well non-stop all the way up to the top,” Drager said.

“I got up to the top, looked over the scenery, and said ‘oh it works.’ That was the first major test I had given it.”

He said that moment was when he realized the transplant had worked.

“Here was the test where I physically made myself very active,” he said.

“That moment, I cried. It was a miracle.”

Drager now has more energy, is off insulin completely and says the transplant given him a new outlook on life.

“From that point on you then have the mental freedom of saying, ‘I can do this.’ I snorkeled on the Barrier Reef at a number of different areas. I’ve zip-lined through the rain forest. I’ve been to China, I’ve been back to Hawaii, I’m heading off to Russia next month,” Drager said.

About 400 islet transplants have been performed in Edmonton since 2000.

Seven patients were treated in the first year.

“Nobody anticipated that it was going to be so successful,” Shapiro said.

“All of those first seven patients were off insulin very quickly,” Shapiro said.

Those 400 islet transplants in Edmonton now represents about one-third of all islet transplants performed around the world.

Improvements in isolating islet cells

The Edmonton Protocol involves isolating islet cells from a donated pancreas and transplanting them into the liver of an insulin-dependent recipient with severe Type 1 diabetes.

The donor islet cells produce insulin which helps the transplant recipient regain control of their blood sugar levels, eliminating or reducing the need for insulin injections.

Shapiro says improvements made to isolating islet cells are responsible for last year’s increase in the number of transplants performed.

A minimum of 300,000 cells are needed for a transplant and the isolation lab team is now able to isolate up to half a million cells – meaning more people can be eligible for procedure.

There are 30 transplant programs around the world.

Vancouver is the only other centre in Canada that offers the islet transplant.

About nine million Canadians have diabetes, with one-tenth of that number living with Type 1 diabetes.

Shapiro said there is still a desperate shortage of organ donors.

To address that, the team will start new research looking at injecting stem cells to see if they perform as well as islet transplants.

With files from Carmen Leibel