Kidney and Pancreas

Video Topic : Micro Magnetic Resonance Imaging based, stylized visualization of the kidneys. Slow zoom through the the skin into the kidneys. The skin slowing fades away to reveal two kidneys with the ureters attached to the bladder. The ribcage, spine and pelvis is visible. Camera continues to zoom into the left kidney.


The kidneys are the primary organs of the urinary system. The kidneys are the organs that filter the blood, remove the wastes, and excrete the wastes in the urine. They are the organs that perform the functions of the urinary system. The other components are accessory structures to eliminate the urine from the body.

The paired kidneys are located between the twelfth thoracic and third lumbar vertebrae, one on each side of the vertebral column. The right kidney usually is slightly lower than the left because the liver displaces it downward. The kidneys, protected by the lower ribs, lie in shallow depressions against the posterior abdominal wall and behind the parietal peritoneum. This means they are retroperitoneal. Each kidney is held in place by connective tissue, called renalfascia, and is surrounded by a thick layer of adipose tissue, called perirenal fat, which helps to protect it. A tough, fibrous, connective tissue renal capsule closely envelopes each kidney and provides support for the soft tissue that is inside.

In the adult, each kidney is approximately 3 cm thick, 6 cm wide, and 12 cm long. It is roughly bean-shaped with an indentation, called the hilum, on the medial side. The hilum leads to a large cavity, called the renal sinus, within the kidney. The ureter and renal vein leave the kidney, and the renal artery enters the kidney at the hilum.

Illustration of a kidney

The outer, reddish region, next to the capsule, is the renal cortex. This surrounds a darker reddish-brown region called the renal medulla. The renal medulla consists of a series of renal pyramids, which appear striated because they contain straight tubular structures and blood vessels. The wide bases of the pyramids are adjacent to the cortex and the pointed ends, called renal papillae, are directed toward the center of the kidney. Portions of the renal cortex extend into the spaces between adjacent pyramids to form renal columns. The cortex and medulla make up the parenchyma, or functional tissue, of the kidney.

The central region of the kidney contains the renal pelvis, which is located in the renal sinus, and is continuous with the ureter. The renal pelvis is a large cavity that collects the urine as it is produced. The periphery of the renal pelvis is interrupted by cuplike projections called calyces. A minor calyx surrounds the renal papillae of each pyramid and collects urine from that pyramid. Several minor calyces converge to form a major calyx. From the major calyces, the urine flows into the renal pelvis; and from there, it flows into the ureter.

Each kidney contains over a million functional units, called nephrons, in the parenchyma (cortex and medulla). A nephron has two parts: a renal corpuscle and a renal tubule.The renal corpuscle consists of a cluster of capillaries, called the glomerulus, surrounded by a double-layered epithelial cup, called the glomerular capsule. An afferent arteriole leads into the renal corpuscle and an efferent arteriole leaves the renal corpuscle. Urine passes from the nephrons into collecting ducts then into the minor calyces.

The juxtaglomerular apparatus, which monitors blood pressure and secretes renin, is formed from modified cells in the afferent arteriole and the ascending limb of the nephron loop.

National Cancer Institute / NIH


Illustration of the pancreas

The pancreas is a long, soft organ that lies transversely along the posterior abdominal wall, posterior to the stomach, and extends from the region of the duodenum to the spleen. This gland has an exocrine portion that secretes digestive enzymes that are carried through a duct to the duodenum. The endocrine portion consists of the pancreatic islets, which secrete glucagons and insulin.

Alpha cells in the pancreatic islets secrete the hormone glucagons in response to a low concentration of glucose in the blood. Beta cells in the pancreatic islets secrete the hormone insulin in response to a high concentration of glucose in the blood.

National Cancer Institute / NIH

The Pancreas

The soft, oblong, glandular pancreas lies transversely in the retroperitoneum behind the stomach. Its head is nestled into the "c-shaped" curvature of the duodenum with the body extending to the left about 15.2 cm (6 in) and ending as a tapering tail in the hilum of the spleen. It is a curious mix of exocrine (secreting digestive enzymes) and endocrine (releasing hormones into the blood) functions (Figure).

Exocrine and Endocrine Pancreas

This figure shows the pancreas and its major parts. A magnified view of a small region of the pancreas shows the pancreatic islet cells, the acinar cells and the pancreatic duct.

The pancreas has a head, a body, and a tail. It delivers pancreatic juice to the duodenum through the pancreatic duct.

The exocrine part of the pancreas arises as little grape-like cell clusters, each called an acinus (plural = acini), located at the terminal ends of pancreatic ducts. These acinar cells secrete enzyme-rich pancreatic juice into tiny merging ducts that form two dominant ducts. The larger duct fuses with the common bile duct (carrying bile from the liver and gallbladder) just before entering the duodenum via a common opening (the hepatopancreatic ampulla). The smooth muscle sphincter of the hepatopancreatic ampulla controls the release of pancreatic juice and bile into the small intestine. The second and smaller pancreatic duct, the accessory duct (duct of Santorini), runs from the pancreas directly into the duodenum, approximately 1 inch above the hepatopancreatic ampulla. When present, it is a persistent remnant of pancreatic development.

Scattered through the sea of exocrine acini are small islands of endocrine cells, the islets of Langerhans. These vital cells produce the hormones pancreatic polypeptide, insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin.

Pancreatic Juice

The pancreas produces over a liter of pancreatic juice each day. Unlike bile, it is clear and composed mostly of water along with some salts, sodium bicarbonate, and several digestive enzymes. Sodium bicarbonate is responsible for the slight alkalinity of pancreatic juice (pH 7.1 to 8.2), which serves to buffer the acidic gastric juice in chyme, inactivate pepsin from the stomach, and create an optimal environment for the activity of pH-sensitive digestive enzymes in the small intestine. Pancreatic enzymes are active in the digestion of sugars, proteins, and fats.

The pancreas produces protein-digesting enzymes in their inactive forms. These enzymes are activated in the duodenum. If produced in an active form, they would digest the pancreas (which is exactly what occurs in the disease, pancreatitis). The intestinal brush border enzyme enteropeptidase stimulates the activation of trypsin from trypsinogen of the pancreas, which in turn changes the pancreatic enzymes procarboxypeptidase and chymotrypsinogen into their active forms, carboxypeptidase and chymotrypsin.

The enzymes that digest starch (amylase), fat (lipase), and nucleic acids (nuclease) are secreted in their active forms, since they do not attack the pancreas as do the protein-digesting enzymes.

Pancreatic Secretion

Regulation of pancreatic secretion is the job of hormones and the parasympathetic nervous system. The entry of acidic chyme into the duodenum stimulates the release of secretin, which in turn causes the duct cells to release bicarbonate-rich pancreatic juice. The presence of proteins and fats in the duodenum stimulates the secretion of CCK, which then stimulates the acini to secrete enzyme-rich pancreatic juice and enhances the activity of secretin. Parasympathetic regulation occurs mainly during the cephalic and gastric phases of gastric secretion, when vagal stimulation prompts the secretion of pancreatic juice.

Usually, the pancreas secretes just enough bicarbonate to counterbalance the amount of HCl produced in the stomach. Hydrogen ions enter the blood when bicarbonate is secreted by the pancreas. Thus, the acidic blood draining from the pancreas neutralizes the alkaline blood draining from the stomach, maintaining the pH of the venous blood that flows to the liver.

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