Enzyme Ducts in The Pancreas are Formed Like Rivers

Source: University of Copenhagen

Summary: Researchers have studied the formation of the pancreatic network of ducts transporting digestive enzymes in mice. The network resembles the structure of road networks and the formation patterns of rivers.

A well-functioning pancreas is essential to the ability to digest food. The organ produces enzymes that help the body digest and assimilate nutrients. The enzymes are led to the intestines via a network of ducts. Applying methods for analyzing road systems and rivers, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have studied the formation of the pancreatic network of ducts transporting digestive enzymes in mice. The network resembles the structure of road networks and the formation patterns of rivers. The new results can help researchers gain a better understanding of disorders like cystic fibrosis. When rivers are formed and branch into smaller streams, those with the strongest current expand, while others run dry and eventually disappear. The same happens with the formation of human organs. They have studied the pancreas in mouse embryos and looked at how the organ develops from the embryo stage until the mouse is born. The study findings were published in the journal PLOS Biology.

Pancreatic ducts

A pancreas coloured with fluorescent antibodies. Photo: Assistant professor Dror Sever. Credit: University of Copenhagen

The researchers coloured the network of ducts using fluorescent antibodies to monitor the development of the network and to learn how the ducts were connected. This revealed to the researchers that the pancreas at an early stage begins to practice and prepare for birth. The organ does this, among other things, by doing ‘test runs’ and sending secretion through the network. The study showed how the organ , already at the foetal stage, is able to prepare its form and structure to such a degree that it is ready to work optimally after birth. The organ’s ‘test runs’ make it possible to optimize the network of ducts to secure the most efficient delivery of enzymes to the intestines. The process that we have uncovered in the pancreas may also prove relevant to other similar organs like the salivary gland. This new knowledge of the pancreas may also lead to better understanding and development of treatments for diseases involving the abnormal formation of the duct network.

Prof. Grapin-Botton said, “I hope this improved understanding of how the organs form these networks of ducts will enable us to discover how diseases affecting the pancreas emerge. E.g. cystic fibrosis. Patients suffering from some types of diabetes also show cystic or enlarged ducts in the pancreas and other organs such as the kidneys and liver. This study is a step in the direction of better understanding the link between enlarged ducts and diabetes.”

More Information: Svend Bertel Dahl-Jensen et al, Deconstructing the principles of ductal network formation in the pancreas, PLOS Biology (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2002842 

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