A pancreas transplant is a surgical option for the treatment of type 1 diabetes. In fact, a successful pancreas transplant procedure can actually cure diabetes altogether. The new pancreas is usually taken from a deceased organ donor. However, in some cases, it's possible to use a partial pancreas donated by a living person.
A pancreas transplant involves a great many risks and possible side-effects for the patient, which is why the procedure is recommended only for patients suffering severe complications related to their diabetes. Basically, for a type 1 diabetic to qualify for a pancreas transplant, his quality of life with diabetes (not to mention his life expectancy) would have to be lower than it would be following surgery, and taking immunosuppressant anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. Fortunately, thanks to modern diabetes treatments, not many diabetes sufferers meet these criteria.
Why Only Type 1?
Implanting a pancreas from a donor into a patient with diabetes is effective only if the patient's own pancreas has difficulty producing insulin. This condition is known as type 1 diabetes. A new, fully functioning pancreas can eliminate diabetes for such a patient. Type 2 diabetes patients can produce their own insulin, but their bodies aren't capable of processing insulin as required. These patients therefore don't need and wouldn't benefit from receiving a new pancreas - they have to manage their diabetes as well as they can through diet and medication.
Pancreas Transplant Procedure
A pancreas transplant is often carried out together with a kidney transplant. This is because severe renal problems are some of the serious diabetes complications that warrant a pancreas transplant. In some cases, however, a pancreas transplant is carried out alone.
The surgery is carried out under general anesthetic. The new pancreas from the donor and part of the donor's small intestine are implanted into the abdomen of the recipient. The donated small intestine is attached to the recipient's small intestine or bladder, while the new pancreas is attached to the blood vessels that send blood to the legs.
The original pancreas is left inside the patient's body, because the pancreas is an important part of the digestion process. More importantly perhaps, if the original pancreas is removed and the patient's body goes on to reject the new pancreas, then the patient would be immediately left with life-threatening diabetes, because there would be no insulin production in the body whatsoever.
Transplant surgery itself is obviously risky for the patient. Furthermore, even after successful surgery that has cured the diabetes, the patient may suffer further problems. The main difficulty for post-transplant patients are the anti-rejection drugs they have to take for the rest of their lives to stop their bodies' immune systems from attacking their new organs. These drugs can leave patients' more vulnerable to infection and can even make them more likely to develop certain cancers. Patients may have to take other drugs to fight off infection and control their blood pressure.
Since the first pancreas transplant was carried out in 1966, much progress has been made in terms of successful outcomes for patients. At the moment, 95% of pancreas transplant patients are still alive one year after they have the surgery. Of this 95%, between 80% and 85% will still have a functioning new pancreas.