Pancreas Transplantation

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Last updated: June 21, 2020
Revisions: 7

Last updated: June 21, 2020
Revisions: 7

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Pancreas transplantation (PT) is indicated for the treatment of patients with diabetes mellitus (typically type 1 diabetes mellitus), acting to restore glycaemic control and reduce the impact of diabetes-related complications.

Even though PT is not a lifesaving operation, it is performed due to the significant increase to patient quality of life, through halting of the progress of diabetic complications, cessation of daily insulin injections, and overall improved life expectancy. Currently, the overall 5-year post-PT patient survival rate is approximately 90%.

Pancreatic Islet Transplantation

It is worth noting that pancreatic islet transplantation can also be used in diabetes mellitus (DM) patients with preserved renal function. Whilst it is a less invasive and risky procedure, it comes with lower rates of long term insulin independence therefore is only performed in very select patients.

Types of Pancreas Transplantation

The types of PT are Simultaneous Pancreas and Kidney (SPK), Pancreas After Kidney (PAK), and Pancreas Transplant Alone (PTA). Donor-recipient matching is based on ABO and HLA-based compatibility.

The SPK transplantation accounts approximately for 80% of all PTs, offering better long-term patient survival than kidney transplant alone.

The PTA transplantation is offered for patients without significant renal disease but with life-threatening complications of diabetes (e.g. hypoglycaemic unawareness or uncontrolled BMs)*, whilst the PAK transplantation is only really seen in those following a living donor kidney transplantation.

*The patient may still require a kidney transplant in the future

Figure 1 – The exocrine pancreas, secreting into the duodenum


Patients with DM* who have progressed to end-stage renal disease (eGFR < 15 ml/min, or dialysis is anticipated within 18 months) or experience life-threatening DM-related complications are candidates for surgery.

*Historically, only type 1 DM patients were considered for PT, however in select type 2 DM patients, PT has led to significant improvement in glycaemic control


Contraindications to pancreas transplantation can be divided into absolute and relative (Table 1). Cardiovascular disease is the main determinant of recipient morbidity and mortality after PT. The assessment for cardiovascular disease is therefore of paramount importance before listing and while on the waiting list.



  • Active infection or malignancy
  • Active alcohol or substance abuse
  • Persistent non-adherence to medical therapy
  • Severe cardiovascular disease
  • Increasing age
  • Recurrent UTIs*
  • Severe gastroparesis
  • Heavy tobacco use or high BMI

Table 1 – Contraindications to pancreas transplantation; *due to the kidney draining into the bladder and therefore risk of graft infection

Surgical Techniques

Donor Retrieval Procedure

Full exposure of the abdomen is obtained via laparotomy, with the bowel mobilised to gain full access to the retroperitoneal space, before the donor is heparinised, the distal abdominal aorta tied, and the organs perfused with cold perfusion solution.

The pancreas is removed with the spleen and duodenum attached. The harvested pancreas will eventually end up with three arterial stumps (the SMA off the aorta, the splenic artery off the celiac trunk, and the gastroduodenal artery off the common hepatic artery) and one venous stump (the portal vein).

The pancreas is removed and placed on ice, inspected for quality and evidence of any damage from the retrieval. The organ is packed in preservation solution and transported to the recipient centre for implantation within 12 hours.

Recipient Procedures

The gastroduodenal artery is tied and the donor’s common iliac artery Y graft is used to connect the pancreas graft arteries into one arterial stump. The native recipient pancreas is not removed.

A recipient midline laparotomy is performed. The graft is usually placed in the pelvis (similar to a kidney transplant), with the graft arterial Y graft implanted on the right common iliac artery and the pancreatic venous stump draining into the recipient IVC. If a SPK is performed, the kidney graft will then get implanted on the recipient left iliac vessels.

The non-physiological nature of the reconstruction results in insulin by-passing the hepatic first pass metabolism and hence can cause systemic hyperinsulinemia. Pancreatic exocrine drainage is handled by means of anastomosis between the graft duodenum (2nd part) and a small bowel loop, with or without a Roux-en-Y.

Complications of Pancreas Transplant

Pancreatic Rejection

Acute rejection occurs in approximately 25% of procedures. Diagnosis of rejection in a SPK transplantation can be monitored though serum creatinine or blood glucose levels; if in any doubt, a renal biopsy can be performed for confirmation (pancreatic biopsies are less commonly performed).

Pancreatic Leak

The incidence of pancreatic leaks is around 5-18%. Patients present with abdominal pain, distension, or vomiting, with features of peritonitis on examination if the leak is significant.

Serum amylase levels are raised in 50% of cases. Drain fluid amylase and lipase levels should be checked (very elevated levels suggest a leak) and CT imaging subsequently carried out to assess for abdominal collections.

Conservative management with antibiotics and percutaneous drainage of collections is often sufficient. However, the presence of peritonitis usually requires surgical intervention.

Vascular Complications

Vascular thrombosis is a very early complication, typically occurring within 48 hours post-operatively. Venous thrombosis  in the pancreas portal vein is the most common, presenting with a sudden unexplained return to hyperglycaemia. Thrombectomy can be attempted, even though it is difficult to salvage the graft at this stage.

Allograft Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis of the allograft occurs to some degree in all patients post-operatively, as part of the ischaemia-reperfusion injury. Patients will present with abdominal pain, tenderness over the graft, fever, or vomiting.

Diagnosis is through the hallmark rise in amylase and inflammatory markers, with imaging useful in confirming the diagnosis, as well as ruling out any collections present. Treatment is usually conservative.

Key Points

  • Pancreas transplantation is indicated for the treatment of patients with diabetes mellitus, acting to restore glycaemic control and reduce the impact of diabetes-related complications
  • Most patients will undergo a simultaneous pancreas kidney transplant (SPK)
  • The native pancreas is often not removed, with the transplanted graft placed in the pelvis
  • Complications include graft rejection, leak, thrombosis, or pancreatitis