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What is the Pancreas?

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Updated March 01, 2011

What is the Pancreas?

Location of the pancreas

Adam

The Pancreas:

Your pancreas is a very important but often under-appreciated organ. The pancreas and the role it plays in diabetes are particularly important to understand.

How the Pancreas Functions

Your pancreas is about 6 inches long and sits across the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach and near the spine. It has a dual role in helping with your digestion and producing vital hormones, such as insulin.

As it is related to diabetes, the pancreas:

  • produces insulin to help maintain the balance of glucose (sugar) in the body
  • produces glucagon when the body needs to put more glucose in the blood to be used for energy

The difference between glucagon and insulin is that insulin lowers your blood glucose by helping your body use the glucose in the blood for energy. Glucagon raises your blood glucose by causing the liver and muscles to release stored glucose quickly.

Islet Cells and Insulin Production

Your pancreas has clusters of cells known technically as the Islets of Langerhans, and most commonly referred to as “islets.” There are approximately 1 million islets in a healthy, adult pancreas. Though this sounds like a lot of islets, it only comprises about 1-2% of your entire pancreas.

There are additional cells found in each cluster of islet cells, called beta cells. Beta cells are the actual cells that produce the insulin needed to maintain normal blood sugar in the bloodstream. When the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys these beta cells, it shuts down the insulin the beta cells produce. This lack of life-sustaining insulin leads to type 1 diabetes and requires multiple daily injections of insulin to survive.

Despite the attack on the beta cells, the remaining function of the pancreas for digestion and production of other important hormones usually remains intact.

The Pancreas in Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

In type 1 diabetes, the beta cells virtually stop producing insulin. Though some insulin may still be produced, it is not nearly enough to balance the glucose in the body. This is why insulin injections are needed.

In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is not attacked by the immune system, but either produces less insulin than is needed, or the body is unable to use the insulin the pancreas does produce. The latter condition is called insulin resistance. Obesity is a major reason for insulin resistance.

Treatments to Restore Pancreatic Function

These are the known ways researchers are attempting to create a normal functioning pancreas, which would essentially be a cure for type 1 diabetes:

  • Regenerating beta cell function so that they again will produce insulin. Though encouraging progress has been made, it is still considered an experimental procedure.

  • Islet cell transplants have had some success in restoring insulin production, but more research is needed before it can become a safe and reliable option.

  • Pancreas transplants are currently available, but due to the limited number of donors, this procedure is usually only for those seriously ill from type 1 diabetes complications.

Sources:

The Islets of Langerhans. Diabetes Research Institute. http://www.diabetesresearch.org/page.aspx?pid=729

Overview of the Pancreas. EndocrineWeb. http://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/overview-pancreas

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