Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Don't take away my Pancreas!


Before I was diagnosed with diabetes I had no real idea what the pancreas did or even whether I really needed one. I think this is fairly common amongst the general public. We are used to hearing about our ‘vestigial’ organs that we can function perfectly well without, so are not surprised at the suggestion that maybe another organ can be added to the list.

Since diagnosis, of course, I have learned much more about the functions of a pancreas. Not only does it normally produce insulin and its opposite hormone glucagon, but it also plays an important part in the digestion of our food, producing powerful enzymes for the purpose whenever we eat. We can live without a pancreas, but will then have to take additional medications to help with the digestion of food. I have yet to discover whether a lack of glucagon is something that needs to be remedied – this is the hormone that prompts our liver to release glucose into the blood to raise blood sugar levels, and which therefore has an opposite effect to insulin.

Some people have their pancreas removed due to infection or disease, and this will make them diabetic. Sometimes the pancreas may not be wholly removed, and may continue to function. I know of a child whose pancreas produced so much insulin at birth that her blood sugar levels were continuously falling dangerously low, and she had to have her pancreas removed. However, a small part remained and this will still sporadically produce insulin, making control extremely difficult and unpredictable. Banting and Best also encountered problems when the dogs they were experimenting on had not had their pancreases fully removed.

Pancreas transplants are extremely complex and difficult, chiefly because of the digestive enzymes which, if leaked, can literally eat away at the surrounding tissue. A more likely future appears to be in the field of stem cell research and beta cell transplantation, but this is currently in the early stages.

So, the pancreas is certainly not vestigial! But neither, it appears are those other organs that traditionally have no use – the appendix and the spleen. The appendix is now thought to be a storehouse of ‘good’ bacteria which can be used to replenish the intestines should they become depleted. And the spleen is now thought to be important in aiding the recovery of heart damage after heart attacks by producing white monocytes which aid in the repair. The conclusion? Never mock an organ that seems to have no use!

Who would have thought a pancreas
Was such a complex thing,
And when it fails to function right,
The problems that could bring?

If you have diabetes
Does that mean it has no use?
Like your spleen or your appendix,
Or perhaps the male prepuce?

But no! It’s not just insulin
Our bodies need it for –
There’s glucagon and enzymes,
So it cannot be ignored!

All hail then to the Pancreas!
Hold on to your original!
It may produce no insulin,
But it’s certainly not vestigial!

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