The Anatomy of the Pancreas

See through body where the pancreas is highlighted

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

Anatomy

Your pancreas is about 6 inches long and sits across the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach and near the spine. It is connected to the intestines.

Function

The pancreas has a dual role in helping with your digestion and producing vital hormones such as insulin which helps maintain the balance of glucose (sugar) in the body. It also produces glucagon when the body needs to put more glucose in the blood to be used for energy.

Insulin lowers blood glucose by helping your body use the glucose 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 islets of Langerhans, 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 5% of your entire pancreas.

There are additional cells, called beta cells, found in each cluster of islet 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 manage.

Despite the attack on the beta cells in type 1 diabetes, the remaining function of the pancreas for digestion and production of other important hormones usually remains intact.

Clinical Significance

In type 1 diabetes, the beta cells almost entirely 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 it produces less insulin than is needed, or the body is unable to use the insulin it does produce. The latter condition is called insulin resistance. Obesity is a major cause of insulin resistance.

Other conditions that can affect the pancreas include pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, and cystic fibrosis. The pancreas is also linked to non-diabetic hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.

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, this is still considered an experimental procedure.
  • Islet cell transplants have had some success in restoring insulin production, but the procedure is risky, and 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.
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