What Is the Function of the Pancreas?

By Jessica Pestka

The pancreas is a vital organ that is part of the human digestive and endocrine systems. The pancreas makes enzymes and hormones such as insulin and glucagon for the body. Enzymes are substances that speed up reactions in the body. The enzymes the pancreas manufactures are necessary for the digestion of food. Injury or disease of the pancreas can result in severe illness and possibly death.

Function of the Pancreas

The pancreas is an important component of the digestive system. It manufactures and secretes digestive enzymes such as amylase, which digests starch. It also produces lipase, which breaks down fats, and trypsin, a protein processor. The pancreas creates and secretes insulin, glucagon and other hormones. Insulin and glucagon are especially important for the maintenance of blood sugar, as insulin lowers the blood sugar and glucagon increases the blood sugar according to the body's needs.

Characteristics of the Pancreas

The pancreas is a long organ located in the abdomen behind the stomach and just above the small intestine. Light tan or pink in color, the pancreas is covered with a thin connective tissue that divides it into lobules. The right portion of the pancreas, called the head, is the largest portion, lying in the first curve of the small intestine. The smallest portion of the pancreas, the tail, ends near the spleen.

Features of the Pancreas

The pancreas is composed of two types of functional tissue: groups of cells termed the islets of Langerhans and ducts called the pancreatic acini. The islets of Langerhans are the portion of the pancreas that manufactures and secretes hormones. The pancreatic acini make and secrete the pancreatic enzymes as well as bicarbonate ions used to neutralize stomach acids.

History of Pancreas Discoveries

The pancreas was identified by Greek anatomist Herophilus in the 2nd century B.C. Several hundred years later, another Greek scientist, Ruphos, gave the organ its name, which means "all flesh" for its fleshy appearance. The next important pancreatic discovery occurred centuries later, when in 1869 a German anatomist named Paul Langerhans identified the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas, the islets of Langerhans, which were later named in his honor.


The pancreas can be affected by a variety of issues that cause disease, including diabetes, cancer and inflammation. Inflammation of the pancreas is called pancreatitis, a life-threatening condition that can occur for many reasons--among them, long-term drug or alcohol abuse, viral infection, cystic fibrosis, cancer and trauma. Type 1 diabetes is the result of an immune system attack on the pancreas and Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas produces insufficient amounts of insulin. Pancreatic cancer is an extremely difficult cancer to treat, with a five-year survival rate of less than 5 percent.

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