The pancreas is an elongated, irregularly shaped organ that is located behind the stomach. The pancreas has two primary functions:
- exocrine function - produces enzymes, which are released into the intestine to digest food.
- endocrine function - produces insulin and glucagon, which are released into the bloodstream to help maintain normal blood sugar levels.
The specialized cells of the pancreas that produce insulin are called islet cells. Insulin lowers blood glucose levels in the body. When the islet cells stop producing insulin, the blood sugar rises uncontrollably and the patient develops diabetes.
Diabetes is the leading cause of end-stage kidney failure in North America. When blood glucose levels are constantly elevated, the kidneys' filtration mechanism becomes stressed. Their very small blood vessels become damaged, and the kidneys begin to leak. Without medical help, end-stage renal failure is life threatening.
Kidney-pancreas transplantation is a surgical option for Type I diabetic patients with end-stage kidney failure. Pancreas-alone transplantation is performed to prevent the development of diabetic complications.