The pancreas is a gland that is between 5 and 6 inches long. It is located in the abdomen behind the stomach. The pancreas produces enzymes that are used to digest food, and insulin which is necessary for the body to control how sugar is stored and used in the body.
Why people need pancreas transplants
The pancreas is the only gland in the body that produces insulin. The body cannot process sugar without insulin. So when there is not enough insulin in the blood, sugar from the foods we eat accumulates in the blood and causes many problems throughout the body including problems with circulation as small blood vessels become clogged with sugar crystals. This can lead to blindness and can damage the nerves, kidneys, and other organs in the body.
Diabetes is a condition caused by excess sugar in the blood. There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is caused by a malfunction in the pancreas which either does not produce enough insulin to regulate sugar levels or does not produce insulin at all. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas produces insulin but the body is not able to use it effectively.
Because high levels of sugar in the blood cause serious complications throughout the body, patients with diabetes often need to test their blood many times each day by pricking their skin to draw a drop of blood. Many also have to give themselves injections of insulin every time they eat to help their bodies regulate sugar levels. For people with type 1 diabetes, a pancreas transplant can give their body the ability to produce needed insulin which effectively cures their diabetes. The trade-off is the need to take medications to keep the body from rejecting the new pancreas. If a transplanted organ is rejected, the recipient would again develop diabetes. Type 2 diabetes cannot be cured with a pancreas transplant because a new pancreas cannot affect how the body uses the insulin that is produced.
The need for pancreas donations
In most cases, a pancreas used for transplant surgery comes from a deceased donor. So far in 2010, almost 245 pancreas transplants have been performed in the United States. Because advanced diabetes often causes kidney failure, many patients who receive a pancreas transplant also receive kidneys from the same donor. Another 576 people have received this dual transplant in the U.S. in 2010. There are currently over 1,400 people waiting for a donor pancreas and 2,240 waiting for kidneys and a pancreas. In some cases, a living donor who is providing a kidney for transplant may also give a small portion of the pancreas to try to boost the insulin production in the recipient to keep the new kidney from being damaged by diabetes.
Pancreas donors give quality of life
For patients with diabetes, pancreas transplant surgery can make the difference between multiple self-injections of insulin every day and being able to live a normal, active life. To find out more about how you can be an organ donor, visit the Donate Life America website.
National Institutes of Health Medline Plus: Pancreas Transplant
National Kidney Foundation
American Diabetes Association
Medline Plus: Diabetes
Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network