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Pancreatic Cancer, Endocrine

Overview :

The pancreas is a 6-8 in (15-20 cm) long, slipper-shaped gland located in the abdomen. It lies behind the stomach, within a loop formed by the small intestine. Other nearby organs include the gallbladder, spleen, and liver. The pancreas has a wide end (head), a narrow end (tail), and a middle section (body). A healthy pancreas is important for normal food digestion and plays a critical role in the body's metabolic processes. The pancreas has two main functions, each performed by distinct types of tissue. The exocrine tissue secretes fluids into the other organs of the digestive system, while the endocrine tissue secretes substances that are circulated in the bloodstream. The exocrine pancreas makes up the vast majority of the gland; it produces pancreatic juices containing enzymes that help break down proteins and fatty food. The endocrine tissue of the pancreas makes up only 2% of the gland's total mass. It consists of small patches of cells that produce hormones (like insulin) that control how the body stores and uses nutrients. These patches are called islets (islands) of Langerhans or islet cells and are interspersed evenly throughout the pancreas. Each islet contains approximately 1,000 endocrine cells and a dense network of capillaries (tiny blood vessels), which allows immediate entry of hormones into the circulatory system.

Pancreatic tumors are classified as either exocrine or endocrine tumors depending on which type of tissue they arise from within the gland. Endocrine tumors of the pancreas are very rare, accounting for only 5% of all pancreatic cancers. The majority of endocrine pancreatic tumors are functional adenocarcinomas that overproduce a specific hormone. There are several types of islet cells and each produces its own hormone or peptide (small protein molecule). Functional endocrine tumors are named after the hormone they secrete. Insulinoma is the most common tumor of the endocrine pancreas. Patients with this disease usually develop hypoglycemia due to increased insulin production that leads to abnormally low blood sugar levels. Gastrinoma, a disease in which gastrin (hormone that stimulates stomach acid production) is overproduced, causes multiple ulcers in the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Gastrinoma was first described in patients with a rare form of severe peptic ulcer disease known as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (ZES). The less common glucagonoma causes mild diabetes due to excess glucagon (hormone that stimulates glucose production) secretion. Other rare islet cell tumors include vipoma (vasoactive intestinal peptide) and somatostatinoma. Nonfunctional pancreatic endocrine tumors are not associated with an excess production of any hormone and can be difficult to distinguish from exocrine pancreatic cancer. Cancers of the endocrine pancreas are relatively slow-growing compared to the more common ductal adenocarcinomas of the exocrine pancreas.

Between one and four cases of insulinoma occur per million people per year, and 90% of these tumors are benign. They occur mostly between the ages of 50 and 60 and affect men and women equally. Less than three cases of gastrinoma per million people are diagnosed each year, but it is the most common functional islet cell tumor in patients with multiple endocrine tumors, a condition known as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) syndrome. Vipoma and glucagonoma are even rarer and they occur more frequently in women. Somatostatinoma is exceedingly uncommon, and less than 100 cases have been reported worldwide. Nonfunctional islet cell cancers account for approximately one-third of all cancers of the endocrine pancreas, and the majority of these are malignant.

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