pancreas (pănˈkrēəs) [key], glandular organ that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones. In humans, the pancreas is a yellowish organ about 7 in. (17.8 cm) long and 1.5 in. (3.8 cm) wide. It lies beneath the stomach and is connected to the small intestine at the duodenum (see digestive system). Most of the pancreatic tissue consists of grapelike clusters of cells that produce a clear fluid (pancreatic juice) that flows into the duodenum through a common duct along with bile from the liver. Pancreatic juice contains three digestive enzymes: tryptase, amylase, and lipase, that, along with intestinal enzymes, complete the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, respectively. Scattered among the enzyme-producing cells of the pancreas are small groups of endocrine cells, called the islets of Langerhans, that secrete two hormones, insulin and glucagon. The pancreatic islets contain several types of cells: alpha-2 cells, which produce the hormone glucagon; beta cells, which manufacture the hormone insulin; and alpha-1 cells, which produce the regulatory agent somatostatin. These hormones are secreted directly into the bloodstream, and together, they regulate the level of glucose in the blood. Insulin lowers the blood sugar level and increases the amount of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) in the liver; glucagon has the opposite action. Failure of the insulin-secreting cells to function properly results in diabetes, which can occur in two major forms, the division being between juvenile onset and onset in maturity. Pancreatic cancer has a particularly high mortality rate, and patients with a family history of the disease sometimes have the pancreas removed if precancerous cysts are present in the organ.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.