Can pancreatic cancer patients get a pancreas transplant? This is an often asked question since most people are aware that kidney, liver and heart transplants are common. So why not a pancreas?
Although pancreas transplants are performed on patients with Type 1 Diabetes, patients with pancreatic cancer are not eligible for a pancreas transplant.
Getting a pancreas transplant would not cure the cancer since even with a transplant, malignancy can return. Most of the time, pancreatic cancer is not diagnosed until the cancer cells have already spread to other tissue and organs.
Even if pancreas transplantation was an option for pancreatic cancer, the patient would have to take anti-rejection medication which would suppress the immune system. When the immune system is weakened, cancer cells would likely grow and spread at a more rapid pace.
So, the answer is no. Patients that have been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, are not candidates for transplanting a pancreas.
Transplants Are Generally For Type 1 Diabetes
Pancreas transplants are most often performed on patients with Type 1 Diabetes which is a chronic, lifetime disease that occurs when the pancreas no longer produces enough insulin to control blood sugar levels. This condition requires insulin injections.
Type 1 Diabetes can lead to other serious complications including kidney disease and kidney failure. This is why a pancreas transplant is often performed along with a kidney transplant.
When pancreas transplants are carried out in people with Type 1 Diabetes, their own pancreas is left in place. The new pancreas is attached to blood vessels in another location as well as to their small intestine. This is because the pancreas has two functions. It not only produces hormones like insulin to control blood sugar, and it also produces enzymes which are essential for digestion.
If the new pancreas is rejected by the recipient or doesn’t function properly after the transplant, they will no longer be able to produce digestive enzymes if their original pancreas isn’t still intact. This is another reason why a pancreas transplant isn’t feasible for those with cancer of the pancreas. If their diseased pancreas is completely removed, they would require continuous supplementation with both insulin and digestive enzymes.
Recipients with Type 1 Diabetes who are possible candidates for a pancreas transplant are usually carefully screened beforehand to make sure they don’t have active cancer anywhere in their body. They need to be cancer-free for at least two years and sometimes longer before they’re eligible for a pancreas transplant.
How Successful Are Pancreas Transplants?
Pancreas transplants in people with type 1-diabetes have a good success rate. Over 80% of pancreases transplanted into people with diabetes are still functional a year after the procedure. The surgical procedure itself usually takes 3 to 6 hours, depending upon whether a kidney transplant is done at the same time. Most patients remain in the hospital for one to two weeks after the procedure where they require close monitoring for signs of pancreas rejection.
The Bottom Line
Pancreas transplants are a viable option for certain people who have Type 1 Diabetes, especially those who have diabetic kidney disease but are otherwise in good health. People with cancer of the pancreas are not eligible for a pancreas transplant. It wouldn’t stop progression of the cancer, and the immune-suppressing drugs could increase the spread of the cancer itself.
Seena Magowitz Pancreatic Cancer Foundation does not intend to provide specific medical advice. It only provides general information to help users better understand their health. SMF urges all users to always consult with qualified physicians for any diagnosis or answers to specific questions.