Pancreas transplant - Why it is performed 

Why a pancreas transplant is carried out 

A pancreas transplant is mainly used to help treat people with type 1 diabetes.

In cases of type 1 diabetes the body’s own immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing islet cells, and the pancreas stops producing insulin (a hormone used by the body to break down glucose into energy).

A lack of insulin causes symptoms of tiredness and frequent urinating, as well as long-term complications, such as kidney disease and eye disease.

If a healthy pancreas is transplanted into the body it should start producing insulin which can help relieve symptoms and prevent complications from occurring or getting worse.

It should be stressed that a pancreas transplant is not a routine treatment for type 1 diabetes. It's a major operation with risks of serious complications.

As most people with type 1 diabetes are able to control their symptoms with insulin injections, in most cases the risks associated with surgery outweigh the potential benefits.

Who should have a transplant

A pancreas transplant is usually only recommended for people with type 1 diabetes who fail to respond to insulin treatment. This usually means they have developed complications or have a high risk of developing them in future.

For example, a transplant may be recommended if:

  • you have kidney disease, which can lead to kidney failure
  • you have frequent and severe episodes of hypoglycaemia (where your blood glucose levels drop to dangerously low levels causing symptoms such as dizziness and mental confusion)

Why you might be unsuitable for a pancreas transplant

The supply of donor pancreases is limited, which means there are more people who would benefit from a transplant than there are donor pancreases.

Therefore, a transplant will not be considered if it's unlikely to be successful. 

You may be considered unsuitable if:

  • you have severe coronary heart disease
  • you have recently had a heart attack
  • you have a recent history of cancer, because there is a greater chance that the cancer could spread once you are on immunosuppression for the transplant (exceptions can be made for some types of skin cancer as these are unlikely to spread)
  • you have complex psychological and social problems which means you are unlikely to stick to post-transplant treatments, for example if you are addicted to drugs or have a serious mental health condition 
  • you are in a very poor state of health and are unlikely to withstand the effects of surgery or having to take immunosuppressants

Page last reviewed: 14/05/2012

Next review due: 14/05/2014

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