A pancreas transplant is an operation to treat insulin-dependent diabetes. It gives someone with diabetes a healthy insulin-producing pancreas from a donor who's recently died. This means they can produce their own insulin and do not need to inject it.
Why pancreas transplants are carried out
A pancreas transplant allows people with type 1 diabetes (insulin-treated diabetes) to produce insulin again.
It's not a routine treatment because it has risks, and treatment with insulin injections is often effective.
A pancreas transplant is usually only considered if:
- you also have severe kidney disease – a pancreas transplant may be carried out at the same time as a kidney transplant in these cases
- you have severe episodes of dangerously low blood sugar levels that happen without warning and are not controlled with insulin
If your doctor thinks you might benefit from a pancreas transplant, you'll need to have a detailed assessment to check whether you're healthy enough to have one before you're placed on a waiting list.
What happens during a pancreas transplant
A pancreas transplant needs to be carried out as soon as possible after a donor pancreas becomes available.
The operation is performed under general anaesthetic, where you're asleep.
A cut is made along your tummy. The donor pancreas (and donor kidney, if you're having a kidney transplant at the same time) is then placed inside and attached to nearby blood vessels and your bowel.
The new pancreas should start producing insulin straight away. Your old damaged pancreas will be left in place and will continue to produce important digestive juices after the transplant.
Recovering from a pancreas transplant
You'll usually need to stay in hospital for around 2 or 3 weeks after a pancreas transplant.
Most people are able to get back to their normal activities within a few months.
Your transplant team can give you advice about how long you need to avoid certain activities during your recovery.
You'll have regular check-ups with your transplant team after the transplant.
You'll also need to take mediciness called immunosuppressants for the rest of your life.
Without these medicines, your body will recognise your new pancreas as foreign and attack it. This is known as rejection.
Risks of a pancreas transplant
A pancreas transplant is a complex and risky procedure.
Possible complications include:
- your immune system recognising the transplanted pancreas as foreign and attacking it (rejection)
- blood clots forming in the blood vessels supplying the donor pancreas
- shortlived inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), usually just after transplantation
- side effects from the immunosuppressant medicine, such as an increased chance of catching certain infections, developing high blood pressure, and weakened bones (osteoporosis)
Many of these problems are treatable, although sometimes it may be necessary to remove the donor pancreas.
Outlook after a pancreas transplant
The outlook for people with a pancreas transplant is usually good.
Most people live for many years, or even decades, after a pancreas transplant. Virtually everyone will live at least a year afterwards, and almost 9 in 10 will live at least 5 years.
For people who had a pancreas and kidney transplant together, around 9 out of 10 donor pancreases are still working after 1 year, and around 8 out of 10 are still working after 5 years.
For people who just had a pancreas transplant, around 9 out of 10 of donor pancreases are still working after 1 year, and around half are still working after 5 years.
The donor pancreas can be removed if it stops working, and it may be possible to put you back on the waiting list for another transplant.
The NHS Organ Donor Register
If you're interested in donating your organs after you die, you can join the NHS Organ Donor Register.
Joining the NHS Organ Donor Register is quick and simple.
You can remove yourself from the register at any time, and you can specify what you're willing to donate.
Page last reviewed: 11 June 2019
Next review due: 11 June 2022