The pancreas is an organ, located behind the lower stomach that is involved in the production of enzymes that aid in digestion and in the production of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood-sugar levels. A pancreas transplant is a surgical procedure to replace a diseased pancreas in patients with type 1 diabetes, as well as, some patients with type 2 diabetes with a healthy pancreas from a deceased donor.
A pancreas transplant improves the overall quality of life and in patients with chronic kidney failure from diabetes, when combined with a kidney transplant (simultaneous kidney/pancreas transplant) can extend a patient’s life expectancy.
As the site of the first pancreas transplant in Texas, the Transplant Center at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center has extensive experience in pancreas transplantation and is Houston’s leader in pancreas transplantation. Patients listed for pancreas transplant at Memorial Hermann have an average wait time of only 7 months, one of the shortest wait times in the country.
The multidisciplinary pancreas transplant team at the Transplant Center is led by nationally renowned affiliated transplant surgeon J. Steve Bynon, MD, FACS, Chief of Abdominal Transplantation and Director and Professor, Division of Immunology and Organ Transplantation at the McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). The transplant team is comprised of highly experienced transplant nephrologists, transplant surgeons, transplant nurses, transplant anesthesiologists, dietitians, pharmacists, social workers, financial counselors and transplant coordinators.
Through our partnership with the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, the Transplant Center remains at the forefront of groundbreaking research, surgical advances and innovative care for patients with diseases of the pancreas and kidney.
There are several types of pancreas transplants, the goal of which is to restore normal blood glucose levels to the body.
This procedure is performed on patients with type 1 diabetes with early or no kidney disease.
This procedure is performed on patients with type 1 diabetes and some patients with type 2 diabetes who also have chronic kidney disease. Most pancreas transplants are performed simultaneously with kidney transplants.
This occurs when a patient with diabetes receives a kidney from a living or deceased donor then later receives a pancreas from a deceased donor, when a donor pancreas becomes available.
In this treatment for type 1 diabetes, islets (cells) taken from the pancreas of a deceased donor are transplanted into the patient. Once transplanted, the islets begin to produce insulin, regulating the patient’s blood-sugar levels.
This treatment is performed in a few centers and is used in select patients with chronic pancreatitis to help with pain control.
Life-saving transplantation is made possible through the generous “gifts of life” by donors. While living, these individuals registered to become donors (upon their death), either when signing up for or renewing their driver’s licenses or through the DonateLifeTexas.org registry. If a deceased patient has not registered but is a candidate for donation, his or her next-of-kin can provide consent for donation on his or her behalf. Currently, about half of Texans are registered donors, and there are over 100,000 individuals awaiting organ transplants in the U.S.
Upon a donor’s death, the donor’s organs and/or tissues are recovered by an organ procurement organization (OPO). The OPO serving the Greater Houston area is LifeGift. To learn more about the organ donation process (for donation from deceased donors), please visit the LifeGift website.
Once a patient is referred for consideration to receive a pancreas transplant, an appointment for evaluation is made at the Transplant Clinic at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. This first appointment begins the process of the medical and surgical evaluation to ensure that pancreas or pancreas-kidney transplantation is the right option for the patient.
The pancreas transplant evaluation process starts with a pre-transplant evaluation of the patient and, if, the patient is suitable candidate, he/she is placed on the pancreas or pancreas-kidney transplant list. As a first step, the patient will receive a thorough evaluation from the pancreas-kidney transplant team, which includes transplant nephrologists, transplant surgeons, transplant nurses, transplant coordinators, financial counselors, social workers and dietitians.
The overall evaluation takes approximately three days and includes:
Once the evaluation is complete and the results of the tests are received, the multidisciplinary transplant team will confirm that pancreas or pancreas-kidney transplantation is the correct option for the patient. If the patient is deemed a transplant candidate, the patient will be placed on The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) wait list for deceased-donor pancreas or pancreas-kidney transplantation.
Pancreas and pancreas-kidney transplant patients primarily receive their organs from deceased donors. Deceased donor organs are scarce and in most cases are distributed to potential recipients based primarily on waiting time. The UNOS administers the national pancreas and pancreas-kidney transplant waiting list. Waiting times vary depending on blood type. Pancreas and pancreas-kidney is most successful when the organs are recovered from younger, otherwise-healthy donors.
Patients awaiting pancreas or pancreas-kidney transplantation on the transplant list are seen by Transplant Center physicians on an annual basis to ensure that they are still candidates for transplantation and will be ready when the organ(s) become available.
When a deceased donor pancreas or pancreas-kidney becomes available, the patient will be notified and admitted to the hospital. The patient will again meet with a nephrologist and a transplant surgeon who will answer the patient’s questions, and the patient will sign a consent form authorizing the procedure.
If the patient has been on dialysis, he or she may require a session of dialysis prior to the transplant procedure. The Transplant Center provides both hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis, so it is unnecessary for the recipient to bring his/her peritoneal dialysis supplies. Sometimes, a final matching test (histocompatibility) must be done before the transplant can happen. If the patient and donor do not match, the patient may have to wait for another kidney.
In the transplant procedure, the kidney and pancreas will be transplanted at the same time. It is performed under general anesthesia and typically takes about 3-6 hours. The team of specialized transplant anesthesiologists will ensure that our patients receive the best available care while the kidney/pancreas transplant is being performed. A plastic stent is usually placed inside the ureter and bladder during the procedure and will be removed by an urologist several weeks after the transplant.
Following the procedure, patients are taken directly to a dedicated Transplant Surgery Intensive Care Unit (TSICU) to recover. Most patients spend two to three nights in this unit before being transferred to the regular transplant surgery floor. Many patients have immediate function of the transplanted kidney and will not require any dialysis after the transplant procedure. The hospital stay following a kidney/pancreas transplant is typically 7-10 days.
Pancreas and pancreas-kidney transplantation carries associated risks, including the risk of the body rejecting the implanted organ(s), the risk of infection and the increased risk of cancer from the immunosuppression (anti-rejection) medication administered to reduce the risk of rejection.
It is important to know that rejection does not usually mean loss of the transplanted organ. Rather, rejection simply means that the balance of the immune system and the organ has changed, and immunosuppression needs to be increased. Your doctor will discuss the risks associated with transplantation with you prior to your procedure.
Although hospitalization is relatively short following pancreas and pancreas-kidney transplantation, the affiliated physicians and staff will continue to monitor our recent transplant recipients very closely in the clinic during recovery. Patients enjoy the comfort of home as they recover yet still receive their necessary medical attention at our clinic.
Clinic visits are scheduled weekly or twice weekly during the early period after transplant, and the time between visits will be increased according to the patient's needs. Patients from outside the Greater Houston area should plan to stay in Houston for three to four weeks after transplant to allow for close follow-up.
The goal of pancreas or pancreas-kidney transplantation is to return patients to a full, satisfying quality of life, since they are off insulin and no longer have strict dietary and travel restrictions. Many patients go back to school, work and activities they enjoyed prior to having organ failure.
One year after transplant, the patient will be referred back to see his/her original nephrologist. This is done so that the patient can always have an expert physician, located near their home or work, caring for them. The patient will typically see his/her nephrologist two to four times a year.
The nephrologist will address problems with hypertension, diabetes and worsening pancreas-kidney function, if the transplant is failing. The Transplant Center will continue to see the patient annually and conduct laboratory tests every month for three years and then every three to four months for the life of the transplants. The Transplant Center communicates with the patient's nephrologist openly to provide optimal joint care for the transplant patient.
Transplantation can sometimes seem overwhelming for patients. The Transplant Center offers a transplant support group, run by our transplant social workers. The group meets monthly and includes patients who are waiting for a transplant as well as those who have already received a transplant. Adult family members, friends and caregivers are welcome and encouraged to come with the patient.
To learn more about our transplant support group, call (713) 704-5200.
To find out more about kidney transplantation or to schedule an appointment with an affiliated physician at the Transplant Center, please call (713) 704-5200.
If you are a physician, you can refer a patient to the Transplant Center. If you are from a dialysis center and would like to refer a patient, please download the Kidney/Pancreas Transplant Referral Form or Liver Transplant Referral Form.