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Pancreatic Islet Cell Transplantation

By Martin Hertl, MD, PhD, Harvard Medical School;Massachusetts General Hospital ; Paul S. Russell, MD, Harvard Medical School;Massachusetts General Hospital

The cells in the pancreas that produce insulin are called islet cells. Islet cells may be separated from the pancreas of a deceased donor. The islet cells are then transplanted by injecting them into a vein that goes to the liver. The islet cells lodge in the small blood vessels of the liver, where they can live and produce insulin. Sometimes two or three infusions are done, requiring two or three deceased donors.

Some people must have their pancreas removed because of disorders such as chronic pancreatitis (see Chronic Pancreatitis). Such people will then become diabetic even if they were not diabetic previously. After the pancreas is removed, doctors can sometimes harvest the islet cells from the person’s own pancreas. These islet cells can then be transplanted back into the person’s body (autologous transplantation). Because the cells are the person’s own, immunosuppressants are not needed.

Transplanting islet cells is simpler and safer than pancreas transplantation, and about 75% of people who receive an islet cell transplant no longer need insulin 1 year later and may not need it for many more years. However, the long-term success of islet cell transplantation is not yet proved.

* This is the Consumer Version. *