12 Facts About the Pancreas

iStock.com/ericsphotography
iStock.com/ericsphotography

You could live without your pancreas, but it wouldn’t be easy. For one, you would need to give yourself insulin shots on a daily basis because you would develop diabetes. A helping of enzyme pills would also be needed to help you digest food. It's clear that the 6-inch-long pancreas, located behind your stomach, has crucial functions—and that's why diseases like pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis are often so devastating. Here are a few other important facts to know about the pancreas.

1. Pancreas means “all flesh” in Greek.

Around 300 BCE, a surgeon in ancient Greece named Herophilus became the first person to formally describe the pancreas as a gland. However, the organ didn’t get its name until about 400 years later, when another Greek surgeon and anatomist named Ruphos dubbed it the pankreas, meaning “all flesh”—possibly because of its lack of bone or cartilage. (The plural of pancreas, by the way, is pancreata or pancreases.) Later, in the 16th century, people started referring to a dish of cooked calf or lamb pancreas as “sweetbreads.” That name possibly stems from bræd, the Old English word for “flesh.”

2. The pancreas has a head and a tail.

The pancreas has four main parts: the head, neck, body, and tail. The widest part is the head, which is attached to the first part of the small intestine, known as the duodenum. In cases where a pancreatic tumor is present, the head is usually the part that’s affected. However, according to one study from 2008, people with tumors in the body or tail of the pancreas had lower survival rates than those with cancer in the head of the pancreas.

3. The man who discovered the pancreatic duct may have been murdered for his work.

The pancreatic duct is a tiny tube that runs the length of the pancreas and carries digestive juices to the duodenum. Although the ancient Greeks knew about the pancreas, its function and anatomy weren’t fully understood for centuries. That started to change in 1642, when German anatomist Johann Georg Wirsung discovered the pancreatic duct after performing a dissection on a man who had been hanged for murder. He named it the “duct of Wirsung” after himself, which may have upset some people. Wirsung was murdered the following year, allegedly over a disagreement as to who had actually discovered the duct.

4. It functions as both an endocrine and exocrine gland.

Although food never enters the pancreas, the organ does play a key role in digestion. It produces pancreatic fluid, which gets piped through the pancreatic duct to the duodenum. Once it’s in the digestive tract, the enzymes in the fluid help break down fat, protein, and carbohydrates. By sending a substance through ducts to other parts of the body, it functions as an exocrine gland. At the same time, it also functions as an endocrine gland by secreting two hormones directly into the bloodstream to help control blood sugars. Insulin is released when you have too much sugar, and glucagon is released when you don’t have enough sugar.

5. The pancreas can “taste” sugar.

The pancreas has taste receptor cells that let it sense the presence of sugar. It can “taste” artificial sweeteners, too. However, unlike the taste buds on our tongue, it doesn’t relay these sensations back to the brain. Instead, this sensory information helps the pancreas balance out the hormones and maintain healthy glucose levels in the body.

6. Diabetes is the result of damage to pancreatic cells.

For reasons that remain a scientific mystery, people with type 1 diabetes have immune systems that attack the insulin-producing cells in their pancreas. This prevents the cells from making insulin, and without insulin, other cells can't access the glucose in the bloodstream for energy. Sugar then builds up unhealthily in the bloodstream. People with type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, can still produce some insulin, but it’s not enough. Their cells become resistant to insulin (often as a result of obesity), which causes glucose to accumulate in the bloodstream.

7. The pancreas can digest itself.

Pancreatitis refers to the inflammation of the pancreas, but more alarmingly, what’s actually happening is that the digestive enzymes in the gland are going rogue and “digesting the pancreas itself,” according to Medline Plus. Heavy alcohol consumption is the most common cause of the disease, but other causes may include gallstones, cystic fibrosis, or high levels of fats or calcium in the blood. Most people with acute pancreatitis end up in the hospital, and it often goes away in a couple of days. Chronic pancreatitis can result in more serious complications.

8. Scorpion stings can cause pancreatitis.

The venom of a Brazilian scorpion, Tityus serrulatus, can cause pancreatitis, according to researchers at North Carolina State University. One particular enzyme in the venom attacks certain proteins in the gland, which impairs the pancreatic cells' functions and leads to inflammation. In a separate study of a related species (T. stigmurus), researchers found that “acute pancreatitis due to scorpion is usually transient [and] self-limited ... but it could progress to hemorrhagic pancreatitis and lead to death.”

9. Ruth Bader Ginsburg beat the odds and survived pancreatic cancer.

Ten years after she recovered from colon cancer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg received bad news following a routine check-up in 2009: She had pancreatic cancer. Fortunately, surgeons were able to remove the tumor, and at 85 years old (and counting), Ginsburg is now the oldest Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. However, most people with pancreatic cancer aren’t so lucky. Although it’s less prevalent than skin, breast, and prostate cancers, it’s one of the deadliest. Just 8 percent of pancreatic cancer patients in the U.S. live longer than five years, according to the American Cancer Society.

James Cleary, an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says it’s very hard to catch in the early stages. “The reason pancreatic cancer can be so difficult to catch is number one, it’s a fast-moving cancer and can grow very rapidly,” he tells Mental Floss. “And number two, it can grow in a spot where you don’t get any symptoms until it’s too late.” In some cases, the cancer may start in the pancreas and spread to the liver or lining of the abdomen without any symptoms showing up.

10. Pancreatic surgery is extremely difficult to pull off.

Sometimes, patients with pancreatic cancer will undergo a complicated surgery called a Whipple procedure, which involves the removal of the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and bile duct, and sometimes part of the stomach, too. However, very few people with pancreatic cancer are candidates for surgery—even if the cancer hasn’t yet spread to neighboring organs. That’s because cancer cells sometimes surround important blood vessels, making it “a tricky area” to operate on, according to Cleary. “The pancreas plays a really important role in digestion, and because of that, it’s very close to several important blood vessels and it’s very close to the stomach and small intestine,” he says.

11. There are genetic components to pancreatic cancer.

More than 90 percent of pancreatic cancers involve a mutation of the KRAS gene, which is also responsible for about half of all human cancers, according to Cleary. However, a drug hasn’t been invented yet to turn this particular gene off. “Finding a way to make a drug successfully target KRAS is one of holy grails of oncology," Cleary says. "It is of such great importance to oncology that a Nobel Prize could be awarded to whoever figures out how to make effective KRAS targeted therapy."

Mutations of DNA repair genes occur in up to 20 percent of pancreatic cancer cases. Some of these mutated genes, like BRCA1 and BRCA2, can run in families. This is why some families have several members who end up suffering from pancreatic cancer. Jimmy Carter, for example, lost his father, brother, and two sisters to pancreatic cancer. His mother had breast cancer that migrated to her pancreas. PARP inhibitors (drugs that block a particular enzyme) have been used to target DNA repair genes in breast and ovarian cancers, and there is now hope that they may also be effective in treating pancreatic cancer.

12. An aggressive form of chemotherapy is helping pancreatic cancer patients live longer.

A chemotherapy regimen called FOLFIRINOX has made significant improvements in the care of pancreatic cancer patients ever since it was introduced in 2010 as a treatment for patients with metastatic disease. Before 2010, “It was very, very rare to see anyone with metastatic cancer living longer than one year,” Cleary says. With FOLFIRNOX, it's not uncommon to see patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer living two years. A huge step forward came in June 2018 when researchers from France found that giving FOLFIRINOX after surgery could increase survival by a median of 20 months longer compared to the standard chemotherapy. Now, researchers are conducting trials to see if FOLFIRINOX can effectively be administered before a patient undergoes surgery. Considering that most patients aren’t eligible for surgery at diagnosis, pre-operative FOLFIRINOX could shrink the pancreatic tumor and increase the number of patients that are able to safely receive surgery.

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

What Purpose Does the Belly Button Serve?

misuma/iStock via Getty Images
misuma/iStock via Getty Images

While your eyelashes are protecting your eyes, your lungs are letting you breathe, and virtually every other part of your body—inside and out—is performing its own relatively well-known task, your belly button is just sitting there collecting lint. And while it’s true that your navel served its most important purpose before you were born, it’s not totally useless now.

According to ZME Science, back when you were a fetus, your belly button was more of a belly portal: Your umbilical cord extended from it and connected you to the placenta on your mother’s uterine wall. That way, the placenta could channel nutrients and oxygen to you through the cord, and you could send back waste.

Your umbilical cord was cut when you were born, creating a tiny bulge that left behind some scar tissue after it healed. That scar tissue is your belly button, navel, or umbilicus. Though you may have heard that the shape of your belly button is a direct result of the scissor skills of the doctor who delivered you, that’s not true. Dr. Dan Polk, a neonatologist in the Chicago area, told the Chicago Tribune that a belly button's shape “has to do with how much baby skin leads onto the umbilical cord from the baby’s body. Less skin makes an innie; more skin makes an outie.” About 90 percent of people have innies.

Regardless of how your belly button looks, you probably don’t use it on a daily basis. However, if you’ve studied anatomy, medicine, or a related field, you might recognize it as the central point by which the abdomen is divided into the following quadrants: right upper, left upper, right lower, and left lower. Another way of classifying that area is into nine regions—including the hypochondriac, lumbar, iliac, epigastric, and hypogastric regions—with the umbilical region at the very center.

Abdominopelvic regions diagram
Blausen Medical, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Your belly button can also serve as the opening for laparoscopic surgery, which can save you from having a scar elsewhere on your abdomen.

The navel is a great central landmark outside of medicine, too. If you’ve taken yoga or Pilates classes, you may have heard it referred to as the center of balance or center of gravity. Because it sits right on top of your abdominal muscles, your belly button is an easy marker for your instructor to mention when they want you to access your core, which helps you balance.

And, of course, belly buttons are notorious for storing quite a bit of lint, which always seems to be blue (you can learn more about that here).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER