Chronic or acute inflammation of the pancreas is referred to as pancreatitis. However, the pancreas is a challenging organ for surgeons and researchers to evaluate and study because of its sensitivity. Additionally, its location, deep in the abdominal cavity behind the stomach, makes evaluation difficult. The primary function of the pancreas is to secrete enzymes that aid in digestion, and even slight damage to this organ can result in the pancreas trying to digest itself. Fortunately, new discoveries have been made in the past decade that may offer long-term help for sufferers of pancreatitis.
New Research Approaches
By working on cells retrieved from occasional pancreas surgeries and animal models, researchers have developed new approaches that offer insight concerning the molecular pathway leading to the chronic form of this disease. Chronic simply refers to long-term, debilitating inflammation of the organ. Research determined that impeding this pathway stops the disease’s progression, and ultimately the fast proliferation of scar tissue, which is a classic symptom of chronic pancreatitis. This scar tissue is referred to as fibrosis and can eventually lead to pancreatic failure or even the presence of malignant tumors. This discovery was the first step in finding out how to slow the progression of the disease.
Studying Cystic Fibrosis and its Link to Idiopathic Pancreatitis
Although a high number of pancreatitis cases are caused by excessive alcohol consumption, some cases are also idiopathic. This term is used to describe diseases and conditions for which no distinct cause can be found.
Cystic fibrosis was studied by the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center–BIDMC–research division in an effort to find the link between the gene that causes cystic fibrosis and pancreatitis. The need for such research was determined when physicians found a high number of similarities between pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis. For instance, both diseases involve specific, abnormally thick secretions that are not necessary for normal function of any organ. This inspired a clinical trial and the eventual discovery that more than 62 percent of individuals suffering from the chronic idiopathic form of the disease were carriers of the cystic fibrosis gene or a similar mutation of that gene.
Additional studies conducted in Canada resulted in other interesting findings. For instance, a link between correcting imbalances in fatty acid levels and the cessation of pancreatitis attacks was discovered. While working with laboratory mice, scientists discovered that rodents with the cystic fibrosis gene, or a mutation of that gene, also frequently had fatty acid imbalances. When the mice were cured of the fatty acid imbalance, the pancreatitis was cured.
Such research is ongoing, including clinical trials designed to investigate whether or not high doses of a supplement called docosahexaenoic acid–DHA–can be used to effectively treat acute or chronic pancreatitis. This gives certain individuals who suffer from the disease hope that eventually a long-term cure will be available.