What is the Pancreas and What is its Job in the Body?

Digestive System. Credit: Purestock


The pancreas is an organ about 6 to 10 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

Enzymes produced in the exocrine gland cells of the body travel from the pancreas into the pancreatic duct.

From there they pass into the common bile duct, and eventually through the ampulla of Vater into the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine.


The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:

  • To produce juices (digestive enzymes) that help digest (break down) food.
  • To produce hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.

Exocrine Glands

The digestive portion of the pancreas is made up of acinar cells which form exocrine glands. These cells make up approximately 95% of cells in the pancreas and are the cells in which pancreatic cancer begins. These cells produce enzymes which aid in the processing of:

  • Proteins - Cells in the pancreas produce enzymes such as trypsin and chymotrypsin which break down proteins that are eaten.
  • Carbohydrates - The pancreas produces amylase which aids in the breakdown of carbs.
  • Fats - The enzyme lipase is produced in the pancreas and assists in the breakdown of fats.

The following article describes what pancreatic enzymes do to food we ingest.

Endocrine Glands

The other 5% of the pancreas is made up of endocrine (hormonal) glands responsible for maintaining blood sugar levels in the body.

Within this region of the pancreas are islands of cells known as the islets of Langerhans. These cells produce the hormones insulin - which lowers blood glucose levels, and glucagon - which raises blood glucose levels, in response to the needs of the body.

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer arises in the exocrine part of the pancreas in cells known as acinar cells. Since the pancreas is located deep in the abdomen, it is not usually diagnosed until the cancer is in the advanced stages of the disease.

Pancreatic has a poor prognosis, but thankfully treatments have been improving in recent years with many treatments currently in clinical trials. A number of celebrities have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in recent years and hopefully. this will help raise awareness and better funding to look for a cure.


Johns Hopkins Medicine. Pancreas – Anatomy and Functions. Accessed 01/18/16. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/liver_biliary_and_pancreatic_disorders/pancreas_anatomy_and_functions_85,P00682/

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