What Are The Meanings and Significance Of These Terms Related To Diabetes: 'Beta Cells,' 'Islets,' 'Glucagon,' and 'Amylin'?

Question: What are the meanings and significance of these terms related to diabetes: 'beta cells,' 'islets,' 'glucagon,' and 'amylin'?

Answer: The terms can get pretty technical, but there is a simple way to look on it. The way I think of it is that, first of all, the pancreas is a pretty big organ. In a supermarket, the pancreas is a sweetbread, that's the sweetbread, the pancreas of the cow, but that is a pancreas. In the human body, the pancreas is also a fairly big organ, but it has these little islands of cells, called islets, or Islets of Langerhans. If you look on a microscope you can see these circular islands that have different cells in them.

Certainly, the most important cell in that island, or Islet of Langerhans, is the beta cell. It's important because the beta cell makes insulin, and insulin is the primary hormone that allows sugar to be used as fuel in the cells. So insulin comes from the beta cells of the islets.

But there are some other cells in the islets. There is, for example, the alpha cell in the islet. The alpha cell makes a hormone that works opposite to insulin, it's called glucagon. Glucagon raises the blood sugar rather than lowering it, and glucagon comes, again, normally from the alpha cell of the islet.

Finally, there is a hormone called amylin, which is now a pharmaceutical product also, and amylin has an interesting effect of telling the body that 'I am eating a meal; I don't need to keep eating the meal,' it produces satiety, it produces a reduction in appetite, and it also slows the emptying of that meal out of the stomach, in order to, again, not rush too much glucose right into the bloodstream. But it's a signal that the body is eating, and that we can slow down the eating and stop -- that's amylin from the islet also.

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