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Transplant Program

Understanding Pancreatic Disease

What Does a Pancreas Do?

The pancreas is an organ near your stomach that makes insulin. Insulin helps the cells in your body process sugar. The reason you are getting a pancreas transplant is to get the insulin-producing cells. The pancreas also has cells that make digestive juices. They are mixed in with the insulin-producing cells, and for this reason, your new pancreas also will make digestive juices.  

When you have a pancreas transplant, these juices will empty from the new pancreas into a small section of the donor’s intestine that also is transplanted along with the pancreas. During surgery, the surgeons will connect this small piece of intestine attached to the new pancreas to your intestine or sometimes to your bladder so the digestive juices can drain away.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease. When a person has diabetes, their body either cannot make enough insulin or is unable to use insulin the right way. 

Insulin is a hormone. This hormone changes sugar, starches, and other foods into energy. Your body needs this energy every day to function. There are two types of diabetes. If a family member has either type of diabetes, you may have a higher chance of getting it.

How Insulin Works

Insulin opens the cells in your body so sugar, called glucose, can enter into them. Once inside the cell, glucose turns into energy. When the body does not make enough insulin, this creates lots of sugar in the blood; this condition is called high blood sugar. When too much sugar ends up in the blood, instead of the cells, it can cause two problems:

  1. Right away, your cells will not have any energy.
  2. After a while, high blood sugar can harm your eyes, kidneys, nerves, or heart.

There Are Two Types of Diabetes: Type 1 & Type 2

Type 1: This is also called juvenile diabetes, because it is the type that affects children and young adults. With type 1, the pancreas does not make insulin. People with type 1 diabetes must take daily insulin shots. About 1.7 million people have type 1 diabetes in the United States today.

Type 2: This type of diabetes happens when the body cannot use insulin the right way, or does not make enough insulin. People can often control type 2 diabetes with lifestyle changes like eating healthy and exercising. It is important to maintain a healthy weight. Some people may need to take pills, inject insulin, or both to control their diabetes. About 16 million Americans have type 2 diabetes. 

Note: Most transplant centers will perform a pancreas transplant on patients with type 1 diabetes but not type 2.

How Does a Pancreas Transplant Help Diabetes?

  • You will no longer need insulin shots.
  • You will be able to eat a regular diet.
  • You will have fewer or no reactions from low blood sugar or insulin.
  • You can be more active and independent.
  • High blood sugar cannot damage your kidney, especially if you have already had a kidney transplant or will receive one with the pancreas transplant.

Facts About Pancreas Transplants

When you get a pancreas transplant, there is a lot to do before and after the operation. Before the operation, you will work with the transplant team to complete an evaluation. After the operation, you will need to see your transplant team often to make sure your pancreas is working well and you stay in good health. 

You, the transplant team, and your family will work together to keep you and your new organ healthy.

This information is provided as a service of the American Society of Transplantation (AST).