Islet Cell Transplant for Chronic Pancreatitis First in Southwest


The first successful auto-islet cell transplants in patients who have severe chronic pancreatitis were performed recently by surgeons at University Medical Center, University of Arizona. The innovative procedure was done on two women in their mid-40s who had been suffering extreme pain related to chronic pancreatitis for many years.

Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that does not improve and over time results in permanent damage to the organ, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The disease typically develops in people between the ages of 30 and 40, and can be caused by hereditary disorders of the pancreas, cystic fibrosis, high levels of calcium in the blood, excessive use of alcohol, or unknown causes.

People who have chronic pancreatitis can have their pancreas removed permanently (pancreatectomy), which usually eliminates the pain, but it also results in permanent diabetes and the need for them to take insulin for the rest of their life. An auto-islet cell transplant procedure avoids surgically caused diabetes while also alleviating the pain.


An auto-islet transplant involves first removing the pancreas, and the islets (the clusters of insulin-producing beta cells in the organ) are harvested from the pancreas and then infused into the patient’s liver. The transplanted islet cells take up residence in the small blood vessels and begin to release insulin, mimicking the activity of the pancreas.

Both procedures at University Medical Center were orchestrated by the University of Arizona Department of Surgery transplant team, which was led by Rainer Gruessner, MD, professor and surgery department chairman, and Tun Jie, MD, assistant professor of surgery. Harvesting of the islet cells was performed by Horacio Rilo, MD, professor of surgery and director of Cellular Transplantation at the University of Arizona.

One reason islet cell transplant procedures are possible at University Medical Center is the presence of a state-of-the-art “Class 10,000” clean room, which is specially designed to limit the possibility of contaminants from entering the room. This allows clinicians to isolate and transplant the beta cells in a safe environment.

Dr. Jie noted that at this point in time, islet cell transplantation is offered at only a few medical centers around the world. In a statement from the University Medical Center, he said “With so few centers offering this procedure, we will be able to help patients not only from Arizona, but from all over the U.S.” Dr. Gruessner told the Arizona Daily Star that he estimates between five and 20 islet cell transplant procedures will be performed per year at University Medical Center.

Arizona Daily Star, August 21, 2009
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
University Medical Center, University of Arizona