April 24, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Pancreas Knows Not to Digest Itself

The pancreas creates powerful digestive juices that could
auto-digest the organ were it not for regulatory systems


The title of a press release from the Salk Institute on 21 April 2022 seems curious: “The protein that keeps the pancreas from digesting itself.” It calls to mind a paradox: how would you store a universal acid? Wouldn’t it dissolve the container? The pancreas has a similar problem:

Every day, your pancreas produces about one cup of digestive juices, a mixture of molecules that can break down the food you eat. But if these powerful molecules become activated before they make their way to the gut, they can damage the pancreas itself—digesting the very cells that created them, leading to the painful inflammation known as pancreatitis, and predisposing a person to pancreatic cancer.

The organ has a solution: deactivate the protein until it gets to a destination, similar to the logistical procedures for transferring munitions. One doesn’t want a box of grenades vulnerable to losing their pins in transport to the battlefield.

Now, Salk scientists report in the journal Gastroenterology on April 21, 2022, that a protein known as estrogen-related receptor gamma (ERR ɣ) is critical for preventing pancreatic auto-digestion in mice. Moreover, they discovered that people with pancreatitis have lower levels of ERR ɣ in cells affected by this inflammation.

The pancreas has two main cell types with different functions. Beta cells produce insulin to control blood sugar, and acinar cells produce digestive juices. The Salk press release does not describe in detail how ERR ɣ works. It just notes that mice without adequate levels of ERR ɣ develop pancreatitis.

God thought of everything, didn’t he? We need the insulin and digestive juices made by the pancreas, but they have to be handled with care. How many mammals went extinct before lucky mutations happened along to stop the juices from digesting the organ that produced them? How many of those died of pancreatitis or cancer until another mutation settled on the correct level of ERR ɣ that offers protection? Only a designing Mind with foresight can have all the logistical requirements met before a system is deployed.

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