Information on Pancreas Functions and Transplant

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What is a pancreas?

The pancreas is a slender organ approximately six to nine inches long. It is located above your intestines and behind your stomach in the middle of your abdomen. The major functions of the pancreas are the production of hormones such as insulin and digestive juices called enzymes.

Enzymes are made in the pancreas and travel through a small tube directly into the intestine to help digest food and break it down into molecules such as glucose. Glucose is your body's main source of energy. It is used by all of your cells.

After food is broken down into glucose, it passes through the wall of the intestines into your bloodstream. Rising levels of blood sugar are sensed by special cells in the pancreas called islet cells. These cells then produce the hormone insulin. The insulin travels through your bloodstream and attaches itself to insulin receptors, which are special sites on the outside of cells. Insulin is what allows glucose to enter all body cells.

What is diabetes?

You may develop diabetes if your pancreas does not produce or your body does not use insulin appropriately. There are two types of diabetes:

  • Type I Diabetes – when the pancreas does not produce insulin
  • Type II Diabetes – when the pancreas makes insulin but your body cannot use it properly

Healthy islet cells (insulin producing cells of the pancreas) respond to the body's blood sugar level from moment to moment, releasing the right amount of insulin and preventing complications caused by blood sugar imbalance. Diabetic individuals do not have healthy islet cells in their pancreas, so insulin injections are taken at specific times during the day in an attempt to control blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, due to many variables, many diabetic individuals experience erratic blood sugar levels (many "highs and lows"). Both types of diabetes result in the body not being able to use glucose properly. Glucose is needed by cells to produce energy. People with Type I or Type II diabetes require medical treatment to control blood glucose levels. Insulin injections, dietary restrictions, and visits to doctors allow many people with diabetes to live normal or near normal lives.

Even when diabetics control their blood glucose levels, many experience related health problems. Fifty percent of people who have diabetes develop problems such as kidney disease, heart disease, eye and nerve damage, and disease of the blood vessels of the arms and feet.

What is a pancreas transplant?

Although insulin therapy is life saving for diabetic patients, a number of individuals on long-term insulin therapy will eventually develop additional health problems. Given the complications of diabetes, a pancreas transplant is an option to consider seriously. The complications of diabetes generally result from erratic blood sugars. While some individuals can control their diabetes reasonably well with insulin, others cannot. Only a functioning pancreas with healthy islet cells can effectively control blood sugars and prevent complications.

Who is eligible for pancreas transplant?

Candidates for pancreas transplantation are Type I Diabetics who take injected insulin to control their blood sugar levels. They may experience episodes of hypoglycemic unawareness. Diabetics who have kidney failure or are about to require dialysis should consider a combined kidney and pancreas transplant. Diabetic individuals who currently have excellent control of their disease with insulin therapy, and who do not yet have any complications from diabetes, are not considered appropriate candidates for pancreas transplantation at this time.

Your transplant will involve lifetime treatment.