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    A 15-year-old Columbus gymnast is one of first in world to receive new diabetes treatment

    By Brittany McGee,

    21 days ago

    Fifteen-year-old Ella Velez’s favorite gymnastics event is vault.

    After the judge puts his hand up indicating she can begin, all background sound fades.

    She doesn’t hear anything and she doesn’t notice anything else happening. Velez just runs.

    The vault is quick, and she doesn’t have to think very much about what she’s doing unlike other, slower events like the balance beam.

    But for the past couple of years, Velez has had to be focused on regulating her blood sugar every time she performs gymnastics. Her younger brother, Alex, will have to take insulin for the rest of his life after he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Screening showed Ella was also at risk of developing the disease.

    But a longtime endocrinologist based in Columbus, Dr. Steven Leichter, helped Piedmont Columbus Regional Midtown become one of the first medical facilities in the country to administer a new treatment designed to delay the onset of Type 1 diabetes.
    Ella Velez,right, a TZIELD patient from Columbus, Georgia, speaks during a Thursday afternoon press conference as her mother Lorna Velez listens. 05/23/2024 Mike Haskey/

    It is the first prescription drug to interfere with the body’s autoimmune process and delays the onset of Type 1 diabetes by two to seven years, Leichter said. Importantly, TZIELD could be used to retreat the patient once its effects wore off, he said.

    “So, it’s possible that over the next few years, if we give this drug to a patient like Ella, they either might not get Type 1 diabetes for a decade or more afterwards,” Leichter said. “Or they may never get Type 1 diabetes.”

    A ‘special needs family’

    Luis and Lorna Velez were no strangers to raising a child with special needs as Ella’s older sister, Paulina, is high-functioning autistic.

    When his 14-year-old son Alex was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in December 2019, Luis felt his family had the support of the Columbus community because of his long history in the city and connection with his “church family.”

    “The full-blown clinical onset of Type 1 diabetes can have a major impact on someone’s life,” Leichter said in a news release “That is the onset of Type 1 diabetes when a person becomes symptomatic, and the progression of the condition is not reversible.”
    Dr. Steven Leichter, M.D., answers questions at a press conference Thursday afternoon in Columbus, Georgia. 05/23/2024 Mike Haskey/

    Individuals in Stage 3, like Alex, will need insulin for the rest of their lives because their bodies can’t make enough of it on their own, he said.

    Alex began participating in clinical trials after receiving being diagnosed, but it became imperative to screen Ella for one of the four autoantibodies that can signify Type 1 diabetes as well.

    One appeared two years ago, and her condition began declining overtime putting her at risk of also developing diabetes. The regular screening placed Ella in position to receive the breakthrough treatment after she tested positive for two of the four autoantibodies.

    Everytime Ella went to the doctor, her numbers were worse than before. Lorna began to come to terms with the idea that both Ella and Alex will have to live with Type 1 diabetes.

    And then Lorna was informed that TZIELD was approved days after another clinical trial the family was trying ended.

    “The next thing I know, we were doing TZIELD,” Lorna said.

    Bringing treatment to Columbus

    Leicheter, whose career spans over 50 years, has treated diabetic patients in Columbus for 30 years.

    “Being involved in and doing things to prevent diabetes is my passion,” Leichter said.

    His passion for treating people with this disease contributed to the commitment in making Piedmont Columbus Regional, and the upcoming Bill and Olivia Amos Children’s Hospital, capable of administering TZIELD.

    “I will tell you that there are other hospitals in Georgia and Alabama that looked at the process of getting this drug and said, ‘We’re not fooling with this,’” Leichter said.

    The collaborative nature of the medical industry in Columbus and a connected community helped bring together the resources necessary to administer the drug to Ella.

    First Leichter and his colleagues worked to set up a screening program to identify patients who would be good candidates to receive the drug.

    Because Columbus has a connected medical community, Leichter was able to make the city the first in the world where primary care physicians could test if patients are candidates for this treatment at the push of a button.

    And then patients could receive the treatment at Piedmont Columbus Regional Midtown, and soon at the children’s hospital, which would be the only medical facility in the region capable of administering TZIELD.

    The process of receiving the treatment wasn’t scary, Ella said.

    She woke up at 5 a.m. every morning to receive infusions at Piedmont Columbus Regional Midtown for 14 consecutive days. Nurses were specially trained to respond if Ella showed signs of side effects.

    Ella thanked the nurses who helped her as she underwent treatment.

    “It felt fun in a way,” Ella said. “It wasn’t scary.”

    Most importantly the staff gave her snacks, she said.

    Now that Ella’s treatment is completed, Leichter is looking forward to treating more patients. Seventy practices are coming to Columbus to learn how to identify candidates, he said, and they’re preparing to help another patient soon.
    Luis Velez., right, speaks during the press conference Thursday afternoon at Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital in Columbus, Georgia. With him are, from left, his son Alex, daughter Ella, and wife Lorna. 05/23/2024 Mike Haskey/

    Luis is happy that the treatment could help preserve Ella’s quality of life, and she will continue to be able to do gymnastics and enjoy her life.

    “I’m at a loss of words when it comes to everything that has transpired in the last few years,” he said. “And I am very, very thankful.”

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