Acute pancreatitis affects about 20,000 people every year and results in 1,000 deaths. It can also increase the risk for pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of the disease. Yet, there is no immediate cure for the painful and debilitating condition and treatment is restricted to intravenous fluid and nutritional support. But a team of researchers from the Faculty of Life Sciences say that insulin could possibly help ease the symptoms of acute pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis is a condition in which the pancreas essentially digests itself, causing severe abdominal pain, vomiting and systemic inflammation. The major cause of pancreatitis includes bile acid reflux from gall stones and excessive alcohol intake combined with a high fat diet.
Essentially, when alcohol and fat accumulate inside the pancreatic acinar cells, the resulting small molecules, or metabolites, deplete cellular energy levels and increase cellular calcium, which causes uncontrolled and catastrophic cell death. The cells burst, releasing their toxic enzymes, which digest the pancreas and surrounding tissue, says lead researcher Dr. Jason Bruce.
His team focused on insulin because it has been used to successfully treat obese patients with pancreatitis by reducing fatty acids in the blood. Diabetes also makes pancreatitis worse, and diabetics are also at greater risk of developing the condition. Some medications to treat type 2 diabetes have also been associated with acute pancreatitis, such as Januvia and Byetta. The drugs have also been linked to pancreatic cancer.
Diabetics taking insulin are less likely to develop pancreatitis compared to diabetics not taking insulin. How insulin protects against pancreatitis was largely unknown.
Bruce and his team were able to provide the first evidence that insulin directly protects the acinar cells, which is where the disease begins. And insulin, which is normally released from the beta cells of the pancreas, prevents the toxic effects of alcohol and fatty acid metabolites.
More research is needed to confirm the benefit of insulin for pancreatitis, Bruce says. But the study does suggest that combined with tight blood sugar control, insulin may be an effective treatment for the condition.