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.

‘Water’ in Kansas City Woman’s Ear Turned Out to Be a Venomous Brown Recluse Spider

N-sky/iStock via Getty Images
N-sky/iStock via Getty Images

Susie Torres, a resident of Kansas City, Missouri, woke up on Tuesday morning with the distinct feeling that water was lodged in her left ear. She likened it to the swooshing sensation that can often happen after swimming, WDAF-TV reports.

Instead of waiting for the problem to resolve itself, Torres went to the doctor—a decision that might have saved her from some serious pain. The medical assistant was the first to realize something was alarmingly amiss, and immediately called for backup.

“She ran out and said ‘I’m going to get a couple more people,’” Torres told 41 Action News. “She then said, ‘I think you have an insect in there.’” For many people, the thought of having any live insect stuck in an ear would be enough to cue a small- or large-scale freak-out, but Torres stayed calm.

The doctors “had a few tools and worked their magic and got it out,” Torres said. The “it” in question turned out to be a spider—and not just any harmless house spider (which you shouldn’t kill, by the way). It was a venomous brown recluse spider.

“Gross,” Torres told WDAF-TV. “Why, where, what, and how.”

Miraculously, the spider didn’t bite Torres. If it had, she would’ve ended up visiting the doctor with more than general ear discomfort: Brown recluse bites can cause pain, burning, fever, nausea, and purple or blue discoloration of the surrounding skin, according to Healthline.

Torres may have remained admirably level-headed throughout the ordeal, but that doesn’t mean she’s taking it lightly. “I went and put some cotton balls in my ears last night,” she told WDAF-TV. “I’m shaking off my clothes, and I don’t put my purse on the floor. I’m a little more cautious.”

Is this the first time an insect has posted up in the ear of an unsuspecting, innocent human? Absolutely not—here are six more horror stories, featuring a cockroach, a bed bug, and more.

[h/t WDAF-TV]

12 Fantastic Facts About the Immune System

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

If it weren't for our immune system, none of us would live very long. Not only does the immune system protect us from external pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, but it also battles cells that have mutated due to illnesses, like cancer, within the body. Here are 12 fascinating facts about the immune system.

1. The immune system saves lives.

The immune system is a complex network of tissues and organs that spreads throughout the entire body. In a nutshell, it works like this: A series of "sensors" within the system detects an intruding pathogen, like bacteria or a virus. Then the sensors signal other parts of the system to kill the pathogen and eliminate the infection.

"The immune system is being bombarded by all sorts of microbes all the time," Russell Vance, professor of immunology at University of California, Berkeley and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, tells Mental Floss. "Yet, even though we're not aware of it, it's saving our lives every day, and doing a remarkably good job of it."

2. Before scientists understood the immune system, illness was chalked up to unbalanced humors.

Long before physicians realized how invisible pathogens interacted with the body's system for fighting them off, doctors diagnosed all ills of the body and the mind according to the balance of "four humors": melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, or sanguine. These criteria, devised by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, were divided between the four elements, which were linked to bodily fluids (a.k.a. humors): earth (black bile), air (blood), water (phlegm) and fire (yellow bile), which also carried properties of cold, hot, moist, or dry. Through a combination of guesswork and observation, physicians would diagnose patients' humors and prescribe treatment that most likely did little to support the immune system's ability to resist infection.

3. Two men who unraveled the immune system's functions were bitter rivals.

Two scientists who discovered key functions of the immune system, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, should have been able to see their work as complementary, but they wound up rivals. Pasteur, a French microbiologist, was famous for his experiments demonstrating the mechanism of vaccines using weakened versions of the microbes. Koch, a German physician, established four essential conditions under which pathogenic bacteria can infect hosts, and used them to identify the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Though both helped establish the germ theory of disease—one of the foundations of modern medicine today—Pasteur and Koch's feud may have been aggravated by nationalism, a language barrier, criticisms of each other's work, and possibly a hint of jealousy.

4. Specialized blood cells are the immune system's greatest weapon.

The most powerful weapons in your immune system's arsenal are white blood cells, divided into two main types: lymphocytes, which create antigens for specific pathogens and kill them or escort them out of the body; and phagocytes, which ingest harmful bacteria. White blood cells not only attack foreign pathogens, but recognize these interlopers the next time they meet them and respond more quickly. Many of these immune cells are produced in your bone marrow but also in the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus, and are stored in some of these tissues and other areas of the body. In the lymph nodes, which are located throughout your body but most noticeably in your armpits, throat, and groin, lymphatic fluid containing white blood cells flows through vein-like tubules to escort foreign invaders out.

5. The spleen helps your immune system work.

Though you can live without the spleen, an organ that lies between stomach and diaphragm, it's better to hang onto it for your immune function. According to Adriana Medina, a doctor who specializes in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, your spleen is "one big lymph node" that makes new white blood cells and cleans out old blood cells from the body.

It's also a place where immune cells congregate. "Because the immune cells are spread out through the body," Vance says, "eventually they need to communicate with each other." They do so in both the spleen and lymph nodes.

6. You have immune cells in all of your tissues.

While immune cells may congregate more in lymph nodes than elsewhere, "every tissue in your body has immune cells stationed in it or circulating through it, constantly roving for signs of attack," Vance explains. These cells also circulate through the blood. The reason for their widespread presence is that there are thousands of different pathogens that might infect us, from bacteria to viruses to parasites. "To eliminate each of those different kinds of threats requires specialized detectors," he says.

7. How friendly you're feeling could be linked to your immune system.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans' high sociability may have less to do with our bigger brains, and more to do with our immune system's exposure to a greater number of bacteria and other pathogens.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have theorized that interferon gamma (IG), a substance that helps the immune system fight invaders, was linked to social behavior, which is one of the ways we become exposed to pathogens.

In mice, they found IG acted as a kind of brake to the brain's prefrontal cortex, essentially stopping aberrant hyperactivity that can cause negative changes in social behavior. When they blocked the IG molecule, the mice's prefrontal cortexes became hyperactive, resulting in less sociability. When they restored the function, the mice's brains returned to normal, as did their social behavior.

8. Your immune system might recruit unlikely organs, like the appendix, into service.

The appendix gets a bad rap as a vestigial organ that does nothing but occasionally go septic and create a need for immediate surgery. But the appendix may help keep your gut in good shape. According to Gabrielle Belz, professor of molecular immunology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, research by Duke University's Randal Bollinger and Bill Parker suggests the appendix houses symbiotic bacteria that are important for overall gut health—especially after infections wipe out the gut's good microbes. Special immune cells known as innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) in the appendix may help to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria and put the gut back on track to recovery.

9. Gut bacteria has been shown to boost immune systems in mice.

Researchers at the University of Chicago noticed that one group of mice in their lab had a stronger response to a cancer treatment than other mice. They eventually traced the reason to a strain of bacteria—Bifidobacterium—in the mice's guts that boosted the animals' immune system to such a degree they could compare it to anti-cancer drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which keep the immune system from overreacting.

To test their theory, they transferred fecal matter from the robust mice to the stomachs of less immune-strengthened mice, with positive results: The treated mice mounted stronger immune responses and tumor growth slowed. When they compared the bacterial transfer effects with the effects of a checkpoint inhibitor drug, they found that the bacteria treatment was just as effective. The researchers believe that, with further study, the same effect could be seen in human cancer patients.

10. Scientists are trying to harness the immune system's "Pac-Man" cells to treat cancer.

Aggressive pediatric tumors are difficult to treat due to the toxicity of chemotherapy, but some researchers are hoping to develop effective treatments without the harmful side effects. Stanford researchers designed a study around a recently discovered molecule known as CD47, a protein expressed on the surface of all cells, and how it interacts with macrophages, white blood cells that kill abnormal cells. "Think of the macrophages as the Pac-Man of the immune system," Samuel Cheshier, lead study author and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Stanford Medicine, tells Mental Floss.

CD47 sends the immune system's macrophages a "don't eat me" signal. Cancer cells fool the immune system into not destroying them by secreting high amounts of CD47. When Cheshier and his team blocked the CD47 signals on cancer cells, the macrophages could identify the cancer cells and eat them, without toxic side effects to healthy cells. The treatment successfully shrank all five of the common pediatric tumors, without the nasty side effects of chemotherapy.

11. A new therapy for type 1 diabetes tricks the immune system.

In those with type 1 diabetes, the body attacks its own pancreatic cells, interrupting its normal ability to produce insulin in response to glucose. In a 2016 paper, researchers at MIT, in collaboration with Boston's Children's Hospital, successfully designed a new material that allows them to encapsulate and transplant healthy pancreatic "islet" cells into diabetic mice without triggering an immune response. Made from seaweed, the substance is benign enough that the body doesn't react to it, and porous enough to allow the islet cells to be placed in the abdomen of mice, where they restore the pancreatic function. Senior author Daniel Anderson, an associate professor at MIT, said in a statement that this approach "has the potential to provide [human] diabetics with a new pancreas that is protected from the immune system, which would allow them to control their blood sugar without taking drugs. That's the dream."

12. Immunotherapy is on the cutting edge of immune system research.

Over the last few years, research in the field of immunology has focused on developing cancer treatments using immunotherapy. This method engineers the patient's own normal cells to attack the cancer cells. Vance says the technique could be used for many more conditions. "I feel like that could be just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "If we can understand better what the cancer and immunotherapy is showing, maybe we can go in there and manipulate the immune responses and get good outcomes for other diseases, too."

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