By Cat Troiano
From health headlines featuring Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, Aretha Franklin and Alex Trebek to what seems like monthly promotions for the Lustgarten Foundation and its sponsored pancreatic cancer research fundraising events, fears of pancreatic cancer have become commonplace, especially when one experiences any of the generalized symptoms. While it is the fourth leading cause of cancer death and makes up roughly seven percent of all diagnosed cancer cases, it is important to remember that the pancreas has multiple functions and that dysfunction can be the result of any of several other conditions, many of which can be successfully managed when pancreatic values are routinely assessed.
Pancreas Form and Function
The pancreas is a gland that aids in digestion and is situated horizontally across the dorsal side of the abdominal cavity behind the stomach and inferior to the liver. The wider head of this roughly six-inch long gland can be found on the right side, connecting to the duodenum via the pancreatic duct, and the narrower tail end can be found alongside the spleen on the left side of the abdomen.
There are two main functions of the pancreas. One, the exocrine function, produces digestive enzymes which are secreted into the small intestine to continue breaking down partially digested food that has exited the stomach. These enzymes and the macronutrients that they break down are:
- Lipase, which converts fats into fatty acid
- Amylase, which breaks down carbohydrates
- Trypsin and chymotrypsin, which break down proteins
The bile duct, through which bile moves from the liver and gallbladder into the small intestine, runs through the pancreas and merges with the pancreatic duct at the opening to the duodenum, which is the first section of the small intestine.
The second function, the endocrine function, aids in the regulation of the body’s blood glucose level. The cell clusters that perform this function are the islets of Langerhans. These cells can be further divided into alpha cells and beta cells, each with their own role in keeping blood glucose levels within normal parameters.
- Alpha cells release the hormone glucagon when the blood glucose level drops too low. Glucagon converts glycogen, which is stored in the liver, into glucose and stimulates the liver to release that glucose back into the bloodstream. Glucagon also contributes to blood glucose regulation during the later stages of exercise as glycogen levels deplete.
- Beta cells release the hormone insulin when the blood glucose level increases.
Insulin transports glucose from the bloodstream to the body’s tissues to supply energy. Excess glucose is moved via insulin to the liver, where it is stored as glycogen, which can be converted into glucose when the body requires more energy, such as when exercising. Insulin also promotes the uptake of fats and amino acids into cells for storage.
Failure of the pancreas to produce and maintain proper levels of enzymes and/or hormones can result in a number of conditions that can ultimately affect other systems in the body.
Conditions of the Pancreas
There are a number of conditions that affect the pancreas.
Pancreatitis: one of the most common conditions is pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas in which the pancreas’ own enzymes, in essence, start to digest the pancreas. Pancreatitis may be chronic or, much less commonly, acute. Excessive alcohol consumption and gallstones are all contributors to this painful condition. The longer the inflammation continues, the more damage the pancreas may sustain, which can lead to secondary conditions, such as diabetes. Hereditary pancreatitis is a genetic condition in which an individual has inherited a problem with his or her pancreas which causes him or her to experience repeated bouts of pancreatitis.
Pancreatic cancer: this form of cancer is the fourth and fifth most frequently diagnosed cancer in men and women, respectively, within the United States, and its poor prognosis makes it one of the most dreaded cancers. Potential risk factors for the development of pancreatic cancer include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, chronic pancreatitis, liver disease and diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes: typically diagnosed early in life, this form of diabetes is essentially an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system destroys the pancreas’ beta cells, rendering the pancreas unable to produce insulin.
Type 2 diabetes: this form of diabetes, which is the most prevalent form of diabetes, is a chronic metabolic disease in which the body’s tissues are unable to utilize insulin efficiently to maintain normal blood glucose levels.
Cystic fibrosis: this recessive genetic condition can affect multiple organ systems, including the pancreas. Cystic fibrosis results in the production of thick mucus that can block the pancreatic duct, preventing the release of enzymes and thus inhibiting digestion.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: this is a condition in which the pancreas fails to produce or move adequate levels of enzymes for proper digestion in the intestine. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency can result from repeated bouts of pancreatitis.
Pancreatic cysts: cysts can develop on the pancreas. A pancreatic pseudocyst is a fluid-filled sac that can develop following a bout of pancreatitis. These pseudocysts may resolve on their own, but surgical drainage may be necessary. Any cysts must be investigated, and surgical biopsy and histopathology may be may be ordered to rule out cancer.
Zollinger-Ellison syndrome: this condition is caused by the formation of a gastinoma tumor in the pancreas or the duodenum. This tumor prompts the stomach cells to release abnormally high levels of acid.
Islet cell tumor: these tumors, which affect the endocrine portion of the pancreas and include insulinomas and glucagonomas, may be benign or malignant. These tumors produce high levels of insulin or glucagon, which are then released into the bloodstream.
A routine complete metabolic panel reveals the values for lipase, amylase and glucose, the results of which provide insight to a patient’s pancreatic health and function. Separate tests that evaluate lipase, amylase and blood glucose may also be ordered to diagnose and monitor suspected cases of pancreatic conditions, diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn disease and cystic fibrosis. Patients who present with symptoms of a pancreatic condition, such as severe upper abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, inappetence, jaundice and fever, should undergo testing for lipase and amylase levels.
As mentioned above, lipase is responsible for breaking down fats in food, converting them into fatty acids. Fats are the most energy-dense of the three macronutrients. When the pancreas is healthy and functioning normally, the amount of lipase in the blood is typically low. If the pancreas is inflamed or diseased, damage to some of the pancreatic cells are sustained, and this leads to higher amounts of lipase that end up in the bloodstream.
The normal reference range for lipase is 0 to 160 U/L.
Conditions that can cause elevation of lipase in the blood include:
- Pancreatic cancer
- Celiac disease
- Gallbladder inflammation
- Duodenal ulcer
- Kidney disease
- HIV infection
Conditions that can cause an abnormally low level of lipase in the blood include chronic pancreatic conditions that result in permanent sustained damage to the lipase-producing cells.
Amylase, also known as alpha-amylase, is responsible for breaking down carbohydrates in food, converting them into sugars. This is the body’s preferred energy source.
The normal reference range for amylase is less 23 to 85 U/L.
Conditions that can cause an elevation of amylase in the blood include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Pancreatic cancer
- Pancreatic pseudocyst
- Intestinal obstruction
- Perforated ulcer
- Gallbladder inflammation
- Eating disorders
- Mumps (due to the fact that amylase is also produced in the salivary glands)
- Intraperitoneal organ rupture
Conditions that can cause abnormally low levels of amylase in the blood include:
- High triglycerides
- Injury to the pancreas
- Kidney disease
Note that some medications can cause an elevation of amylase in the blood, including:
- corticosteroid drugs
- some blood pressure medications
- some antibiotics
- some birth control drugs
- some chemotherapy agents
- some antiviral drugs
- some psychiatric drugs
Amylase levels that are elevated are indicative that a problem may be present, but not necessarily one of the pancreas. Lipase levels are more specific to pancreatic function. Note that elevations of either enzyme that are three times greater than the normal reference range are characteristic of pancreatitis.
Abnormally high or low blood glucose levels can reveal how efficiently the endocrine portion of the pancreas is functioning.
– The normal reference range for a fasting blood glucose level is less than 100 mg/dL.
– A result of 100 to 125 mg/dL on a fasting blood glucose level test is indicative of prediabetes. – – When two consecutive fasting blood glucose level tests both yield results of 126 mg/dL or greater, then a diagnosis of diabetes is confirmed.
– A result of 200 or greater on a random, non-fasting blood glucose level test is also indicative of diabetes.
Read here for additional information on diabetes and diabetic testing.
A fecal chymotrypsin level test should be ordered when a patient presents with signs and symptoms of pancreatic insufficiency. Such indications include unexplained weight loss or, in children, inability to gain weight, abdominal cramping, diarrhea and foul-smelling or greasy stools.
A normal test result for someone with a healthy pancreas is a positive result, indicating the presence of chymotrypsin in the stool. A negative result indicates that the patient may have pancreatic insufficiency.
Additional Tests for Pancreatic Health
Various diagnostic imaging tests can visualize the pancreas to evaluate for any structural abnormalities that may be causing symptoms. Such tests include:
- Computed tomography, or CT, scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography
As stated above, some pancreatic conditions can lead to permanent damage to the pancreas, resulting in serious consequences. Furthermore, with most cases of pancreatic cancer, by the time symptoms present, the disease is already advanced and the prognosis is grave. Evaluating pancreatic values with routine periodic metabolic profile panels is an important key in monitoring pancreatic health and function, to catch conditions early and to thus increase the chance of halting further damage.