First Islet Cell Transplant for Chronic Pancreatitis at MedStar Georgetown is Performed

September 3, 2015

Virginia Woman ‘Feels Amazing’ without Her Pancreas

(Washington, D.C.) September 3, 2015

“Oh my God, I feel amazing,” said Seana Frost- Barnes, 30, of Warrenton, Virginia. “I can’t believe I lived like I did for so long.” 

Seana & Steven
Seana & Steven

Six months ago, Seana would not have described her health as amazing at all. But after becoming MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s first person to undergo a pancreatectomy and autologous islet cell transplant for chronic pancreatitis, she has every reason to be excited about her new life without chronic pain and constant trips to the hospital.

Islet Cells
Islet Cells

“Her pancreatitis landed her in the emergency room once or twice a week and she had to be admitted to the hospital one to two times a month,” said transplant surgeon Chirag Desai, MD, surgical director of Islet Cell Transplant program at the MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute. “Like many chronic pancreatitis patients she suffered with constant severe pain, nausea and vomiting.”

A deformity in the ducts of her pancreas likely caused the condition that Seana began to notice when she was 16. The ducts are supposed to drain enzymes from the pancreas. But if they’re anatomically abnormal or clogged, the enzymes stay trapped in the pancreas and cause consistent damage resulting in chronic inflammation of the pancreas with excruciating pain and other symptoms.

“I always knew something was terribly wrong with me but no one could figure it out. Finally, in 2009, after eight years of not knowing what I had, I got my diagnosis. But that wasn’t before I had been taking a lot of narcotic pain medications and my quality of life was not good, Seana said.”

Seana and Two Snakes
Seana and Two Snakes

An avid equestrian, Seana even had to stop riding and competing on her beloved horse, ‘Two Snakes.’ “As I got sicker I was unable to train. I used to do eventing, which is dressage, show jumping and cross country. But I haven’t been riding consistently and can’t do any jumping anymore.”

As trips to the emergency room became more frequent, Seana and her husband Steven began to explore the option of total pancreatectomy and auto islet cell transplant. That would mean the removal of Seana’s entire pancreas, then using a special technology to remove her islet cells from her pancreas and put those cells back into her body.

“I wanted her to have the transplant about one or two years before now,” said Steven.  “I kept telling her that she couldn’t keep living like she was living.”

“I was sick of being sick. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t healthy,” said Seana.

The MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute began an islet cell transplant program in late 2014. Seana was approved for the procedure shortly thereafter.  

But a few days before her scheduled transplant, Seana suffered the worst pancreatic attack she’d ever had. She was hospitalized for two weeks as her condition became life-threatening and her transplant had to be postponed.

“I really thought I was going to die from that episode. The doctors explained that my attacks would likely get worse.”


After she recovered, on the morning of May 27, 2015 Seana’s islet cell transplant began. Starting at 8:30am Dr. Desai and his team performed the surgery to remove Seana’s entire diseased pancreas.

Islet Cell Lab
Islet Cell Lab

The pancreas was then taken to a special laboratory recently constructed for cell transplant within MedStar Georgetown.  That’s where islet cell laboratory director Wanxing Cui, MD and his team began the lengthy process of islet isolation, or digesting the pancreas gland to separate islet cells out of the pancreas. This procedure yielded a batch of islet cells which were then injected into Seana’s liver where they immediately began to function as if they were within a healthy pancreas. By 6:30 that evening the islet cell transplant was complete.

“Three months later, she is doing great,” said Khalid Khan, MD, Seana’s gastroenterologist and medical director of the MGTI’s Islet Cell Transplant program. “She is taking no insulin.”

Dr. Khan says that some islet cell transplant patients do end up taking insulin after the procedure but many prefer that to the constant pain and suffering of chronic pancreatitis.

“I was totally excited about being the first person to have this done at Georgetown,” said Seana. I was really interested in the whole process because I knew my case was far from routine. If my situation can be a benchmark to help others, I’m all for that.  I only wish I had done it sooner.  Before my transplant I couldn’t bear the thought of going out to buy a loaf of bread. Today I want to do all kinds of things. I want to go on vacation. I want to live my life, which is now a night and day comparison to the way it was before the transplant.”

“Total pancreatectomy with autologous islet cell transplant is a great procedure for a select group of patients with chronic pancreatitis,” said Dr. Desai. “Maximum benefits can be obtained if the patients are evaluated and operated on at right time. However, due to relative unawareness of the procedure and the facilities that offer it, patients are often delayed in seeing us and that can influence their outcome. Our team of physicians and scientists involved with the islet cell isolation procedure has been involved in this field for quite a few years bringing significant experience to this program.”

Seana’s ultimate goal is to get back on Two Snakes before too long and compete. She has visited him almost every day to tell him they will ride together again. 

Their Wedding Day
Their Wedding Day

“I know it won’t be too long before I can get out riding again. My dream is to participate in the International Horse Show. I’m going to give myself a year or two for that. But I’ll get there. ”



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Marianne Worley
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