The pancreas is located just below the stomach in a sideways position. It is elongated and measures about six inches in length. The pancreas is actually a small portion in the cluster of these hormone producing cells which go by the name of islets of Langerhans after Paul Langerhans. In the 1860s Langerhans described these hormone producing cells as those that are not connected to ducts but exist within the pancreas. The number of Langerhans' islets occupying the pancreas varies. A normal sized pancreas can have as many as a million islets. These cells are so small that they comprise only about 2% of the entire pancreas.

Alpha, beta and delta are the names given to the three kinds of cells that are found in each of these microscopic islets. Scientists researching after Langerhans went on to discover that the delta cells secrete somatostatin; this hampers the release of growth hormones. Somatostatin restrains the secretion of gastrin and insulin as well. Almost 80% of these islets are composed of beta cells that produce and secrete insulin. Beta cells help to remove excess glucose from the body. They do this by bonding with receptor cells and thus increase the capacity of the targeted tissues to absorb and use up more glucose. Glucagon is a hormone produced by alpha cells and works to increase the blood sugar level, unlike insulin which controls sugar levels. Unlike the other hormones that are controlled by the pituitary glands, both the alpha and beta cells receive signals from the nervous system and the blood in circulation, to maintain the balance of insulin and glucagon secretions. In this way the levels of glucose circulating in the blood adjust to requirements of the body. Here the pancreas along with its scattered cells actually works as an endocrine gland.

However, the pancreas is an exocrine gland organ too that works to produce enzymes that help digestion. To aid digestion in the small intestines the pancreas secretes pancreatic juices which are loaded with enzymes that are passed down to the small intestines where they help to break down proteins, carbohydrates and lipids in the chime. Chime is a semi solid mass of food that is partially digested in the stomach and is passed onto the duodenum. It is the pancreas that neutralizes chime. Starvation will ensue if the pancreas is not able to breakdown proteins, fat and starch to neutralize chime.

The pancreas can function in both capacities as an endocrine organ as well as an exocrine organ as it receives two kinds of regulatory inputs. One from the autonomic nervous system and the other through hormones in the blood and so the pancreas is able to regulate its functions. Pancreas is an important organ that houses all the digestive enzymes. Any damage to the pancreas requires immediate medical attention, more so in case of a punctured pancreas.

Besides helping in digestion there are other enzymes in the pancreas that produce the cells that secrete the two hormones insulin and glucagon. These two enzymes are secreted directly into the bloodstream as it is in the blood that they are needed to regulate the glucose level. Insulin helps to lower blood sugar as well as increase the amount of stored carbohydrates. Glucagon increases lowered blood sugar. If these hormones do not work properly then diabetes occurs.

Pancreas and diabetes

Type 1 diabetes or Mellitus diabetes is a chronic form of diabetes caused by a disorder in the autoimmune functioning. The insulin-secreting cells present in the pancreas are attacked by the immune system. The cells in the pancreas then produce either very little or no insulin. Since the insulin hormone cannot absorb and use glucose from nutrients in the food, the level of glucose in the body becomes abnormally high.

Type 1 diabetes is treated by monitoring the glucose levels regularly and giving doses of insulin to the patient, according to the reading of sugar levels, on examination. Treatment for blood sugar as well as changes in life-style and self care are needed in order to minimize the risks that could lead to further complications as a result of diabetes.

Though diabetes can occur at any age, type 1 diabetes is detected in childhood and also during young adulthood. Type 1 diabetes can be hereditary and can develop in those who have a family history of diabetes. Even people without a family history of diabetes could develop it as those who are prone to diabetes probably have one or two genes that make them susceptible to diabetes. Besides genes, exposure to certain viruses and foods from the environment in which they live could also set off the autoimmune trigger.

Pancreas and cancer

Scientists have not yet been able to figure out the causes of cancer in the pancreas. However like in many other cancers, smoking increases a person's chances of contracting cancer. Research has proved that those who smoke have two to three times more risk of developing cancer as compared to non-smokers. It is best to quit smoking as it reduces the risk of lung cancer and pancreatic cancer as well.

One of the most deadly cancers is cancer of the exocrine pancreas, among all pancreatic cancers, as it has a high mortality rate. Cancer may not be contagious but why one person gets pancreatic cancer and not another has not yet been explained away by researchers and thus cancer remains one of the riskiest diseases.

Pancreatic cancer has been called a 'silent' cancer because in the initial stages the cancer does not show any symptoms. Also because the pancreas is placed so deep in the body that tumors are not palpable (cannot be felt when abdomen is pressed). So symptoms begin to appear only once the cancer becomes large and then it begins to interfere with the functions of the stomach, duodenum, liver and gallbladder which are all positioned close by. Bile cannot pass into the digestive system when the tumor blocks the bile duct leading to jaundice, a disease that causes the urine, the skin and the whites of the eyes to turn yellow.

Pancreatic cancer causes pain in the abdomen and back once the cancer grows and spreads. The pain becomes worse when the patient lies down or after meals. Nausea, weight loss, loss of appetite and weakness are some of the other effects of pancreatic cancer.