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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Essential Pancreas

By John Starborgson

The pancreas is an often forgotten organ. Most people can easily go weeks, months or even decades without thinking of their pancreas even one time. Nestled deep in the abdominal cavity, the pancreas performs its functions automatically, with no voluntary input. Because the pancreas is such a behind-the-scenes type of organ, problems (such as cancer) that arise are often not noticed until it is too late. Catching these problems early is often accomplished by accident, when in a routine surgery or other operation. Clinical trials are underway to increase the likelihood of catching cancer and other pancreatic problems early.

The pancreas forms from two lobes in the abdomen of human embryo. The ventral lobe splits into what will ultimately become the liver, gall bladder and half of the pancreas. The dorsal lobe and the ventral lobe grow together and form one organ, the pancreas. But, because of the two very different parts of the organ, the pancreas has two distinct functions.

One purpose of the pancreas deals with the digestive system, while the other function is related to hormones including glucagon and insulin. As related to the digestive system, the pancreas secretes enzymes directly into the colon. When combined with bile from the liver, these enzymes breakdown fats from long chains into smaller molecules that can be absorbed and digested. This is often referred to as the exocrine function of the pancreas.

The endocrine function of the pancreas involves secreting hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones, insulin and glucagon, regulate blood sugar. At rest, the human body requires a constant supply of sugars, but receives an intermittent supply. Without the pancreas, blood sugar would spike after a meal, as sugars are absorbed, and gradually dwindle to almost nothing as the body uses it. Also, increased activity levels would only be possible immediately after a meal, and would be next to impossible if a person was hungry. Obviously that is not practical, and the body has developed so that energy is available in usable amounts at all times, mostly regardless of when the last meal was eaten.

Insulin forces the muscles, liver and other tissues to take up glucose, lowering blood sugar, while glucagon does the opposite. Depending on the type, diabetics either have a deficiency in producing insulin, or have a reduced effect of insulin on the organs of the body.

Cancer of the pancreas is often very severe for two main reasons. One is that there is only one pancreas, which performs multiple functions. Contrast that with the kidneys (which exist in a semi-redundant pair), or the liver (which can be partially removed and still function). Furthermore, a failing pancreas results in starvation of the rest of the organs, since a lack of insulin results in an inability to use sugar in the blood. The brain in particular cannot tolerate a drop in blood sugar.

The second reason for the frequent severity of pancreatic cancer or other failure is the deep placement and quiet operation within the human body.
Organs such as the heart are absolutely essential for life, but a failing heart is usually a highly traumatic event. A heart can be easily monitored by an ECG, stethoscope, or simply feeling the beat from the outside. By contrast, the pancreas cannot be monitored well, and a failing pancreas is often only noticed by observing the catastrophic failure of other organs. Furthermore, indications of pancreatic failure are often attributed to other organs first.

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