New England Medical Center has established the region’s first program focusing exclusively on pancreatic transplants, seen as a boon to diabetes patients, especially those who need or have had kidney transplants.

“There are lots of patients who could be candidates,” said Dr. Richard Freeman, transplant surgeon. “We’re pretty excited about it.”

He said few hospitals in New England have gotten involved in pancreas transplantation over the years, and none on a major scale, although a few hospitals around the country, including the University of Minnesota and University of Miami, do them on a regular basis. “There just hasn’t been an institutional commitment to a program around here,” he said.

Those with Type 1 or insulin-dependent diabetes must inject themselves with insulin many times per day, and check their blood sugar religiously, to make sure their levels are under control.

A pancreas transplant would, in theory, end the need for insulin injections.

“It’s a treatment for diabetes,” he said. “It’s not a panacea, but, for some people, it may be the answer.”

The downside to the transplant is the need for a major operation, plus having to take anti-rejection medications for life.

That’s why the optimal candidates are likely to be those in need of a kidney transplant or those who have already had one, Freeman said. Such patients are already on anti-rejection drugs. Kidney failure is a complication of diabetes.

While donor kidneys and most other organs, such as hearts and livers, are in short supply, there are plenty of cadaver pancreases to go around, he said.

“Nobody is using them,” he said.