Islet cell transplantation is a procedure involving the injection of islet cells removed from a deceased donor pancreas into your liver. This can improve glucose control and restore awareness of hypoglycaemia. Most people require two islet transplantations.

Either click on the titles below or scroll through this page to find out more about islet cell transplantation.

What is an islet cell transplant?

Who can have an islet cell transplant?

What are the risks?

What are the benefits?

What is an islet cell transplant?

An islet cell transplant involves injecting islet cells taken from a deceased donor into a vein within the liver (the portal vein) of a patient.

Islet cells (or Islets of Langerhans) are groups of cells found within the pancreas. Some islet cells known as ‘beta cells’ produce insulin. These cells produce insulin when blood sugarĀ  levels in the body are high. Insulin brings the blood sugar levels down again. When blood sugar levels are low, islet cells stop producing insulin.

Islet cells as seen through a microscope.

An islet cell transplant aims to reduce the frequency of severe hypoglycaemia, improve awareness of hypoglycaemia, improve quality of life, reduce fear of hypoglycaemia, and reduce the risk of long-term complications of diabetes.

Types of Islet Transplant

There are different types of islet transplant and these will be discussed when you meet with the transplant team.

  • Islet Transplantation is the injection of islet cells into your liver.
  • Simultaneous Islet Kidney (SIK) transplant means you will receive islet cells removed from the pancreas of the same donor that you receive the kidney from. This is suitable for patients who were considered for simultaneous pancreas kidney transplant but the risks of surgery was considered too great.

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Who can have an islet cell transplant?

Islet cell transplantation may be appropriate for patients with type 1 diabetes with severe hypoglycaemia, poor glucose control, and have good kidney function.

Some people with type 1 diabates find it difficult to manage their blood sugar despite the great efforts they make with their diet, their lifestyle, and take multiple insulin injections or use an insulin pump. Their blood sugar varies greatly, going from high to low levels unpredictably. They have frequent episodes of severe hypoglycaemia which mean they need help from other people and often have no symptoms or warning when their blood glucose is low (impaired awareness of hypoglycaemia). This can be very dangerous, and can have adverse effects on their quality of life and the lives of their families.

An islet transplant aims to reduce the frequency of severe hypoglycaemia and improve awareness of hypoglycaemia. Ultimately, this will improve quality of life, reduce fear of hypoglycaemia, and reduce the rick of long-term complications of diabetes.

Who may not be suitable for an islet transplant?

Some people may not be suitable for an islet transplant. This may be due to:

  • having moderate or severe kidney malfunction. Anti-rejection medication can worsen kidney function, and your medical team will assess this pre-transplant.
  • being very insulin-resistant.
  • taking more than 60 units of insulin per day.
  • women and men planning pregnancy, because we are not certain of the long term effects of some anti-rejection drugs on the unborn baby.
  • other less common reasons which your medical team will discuss with you.

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What are the risks?

Whilst islet cell transplantation is generally considered to be a low-risk procedure, it does carry similar risks to other surgical procedures. Complications may occur during or anytime after the procedure and you will be made aware of them by your transplant team.

Here you will find an overview of some of the complications that may arise. You will find a summary table of other risks at the bottom of this page.

If you have any questions about the risks associated with islet cell transplantation, your transplant team will be able to answer them.

Rejection of the Transplanted Islet Cells

Rejection may occur which means your new islets stop producing insulin. Whilst this can occur anytime after your procedure, complete failure of the islets is uncommon.

It is expected that seven out of 10 people will continue to have clinical benefit from their transplant after five years. This is in terms of fewer severe hypoglycaemic episodes, better control of their diabetes, and better quality of life.

Side-effects of the Anti-rejection Medication

The anti-rejection drugs you are given may cause side-effects. Side-effects include worsening your kidney function, mouth ulcers, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, acne, joint aches, hand shaking, and ankle swelling.

The anti-rejection medication increases the risk of infection. This is because the medication dampens your immune system so as not to reject the transplanted islet cells. Most infections can be treated and the risk of dying due to infection is probably less than two people in every 100 treated over six years with immunosuppressant medication.

The anti-rejection medication also increases the risk of cancers for similar reasons as above. Most of these cancers are likely to be treatable, but sadly some of these will be fatal. However, as you will be monitored closely after your transplant, most cancers (if they develop) will be detected at an early and potentially treatable stage.

Also, approximately eight out of every 100 islet cell transplant patients is likely to develop skin cancer. Almost all of these cancers will be treatable and are unlikely to be fatal. The risk of skin cancer can be reduced by having regular skin examinations, by using the highest factor sun-block, and covering up in the sun. You will be encouraged to examine your skin on a monthly basis and let your medical team know about any changes, or unusual lumps and bumps.

Other Risks

Other risks associated with islet cell transplanted are summarised in the table below.

Death due to the operation or procedureLess than 1 patient in 100
Operation to open the tummy2 patients in 100
Repeat operation on the tummyClose to zero
Serious surgical complications including colostomyClose to zero
Any infection over 6 years17 patients in 100
Life-threatening infection with long-term clinical effects over 6 years2 patients in 100
Death due to infection over 6 years1 patient in 300
Cancer, potentially life-threatening, over 6 years (except skin cancer)Less than 2 patients in 100
Skin cancer including melanoma (often treatable) over six years8 patients in 100
Severe reduction in kidney function due to anti-rejection medicationSometimes

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What are the benefits?

The goals of islet cell transplantation are:

  • Reduce the frequency of severe hypoglycaemia
  • Improve awareness of hypoglycaemia
  • Improve quality of life
  • Reduce fear of hypoglycaemia
  • Reduce the risk of long-term complications of diabetes

The goal of treatment is NOT to eliminate the need for insulin injections. However, this can be a great bonus when this happens. For some people, they will have freedom from insulin injections for up to one year and very occasionally for more than five years. For others, they will need to continue with some level of injected insulin from the start.

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