Flinders Medical Centre Foundation
Flinders Medical Centre Foundation


What Role Does Alcohol Play In Acute Pancreatitis?
First Published: Investigator - February 2006

Research into the role that alcohol plays in acute pancreatitis is under investigation at Flinders Medical Centre.

Acute pancreatitis is caused by alcohol or gallstones and results in damage to the pancreas which becomes inflamed. This inflammation is part of a natural healing process that the body takes on to try to repair itself. If the attack is mild there will be a period of discomfort for the patient however the outcome is usually a positive one.

More severe cases, sometimes found within heavy drinkers, mean a much stronger defensive reaction takes place within the body. Due to this strong reaction healthy neighbouring organs can be damaged as the body creates an excess of immune system chemicals. If this occurs or a bacterial or fungal infection sets in the prognosis is usually poor and the recovery rate low.

Associate Professor Gino Saccone, Chief Medical Scientist in the department of Surgery at Flinders, and his team including research fellow Masahiko Kawamoto, are focusing on the effects alcohol has on the pancreas and a small valve called the Sphincter of Oddi, which regulates the flow of digestive fluids into the small bowel.

The team has found that when alcohol is absorbed through the stomach the flow of blood within the pancreas decreases and the Sphincter of Oddi function is compromised. This can cause damage within the pancreas due to insufficient oxygen reaching the tissue through the blood and a build up of pressure in the pancreas.

At this point in time no special treatment or therapy other than pain relief is available for sufferers of acute pancreatitis as all the steps in the disease process are not completely understood.

“The mechanisms that we are revealing are part of a complex series of events that happen within the body to cause acute pancreatitis. We must understand the whole group of events before a suitable treatment can be found,” says Prof Saccone.

A major finding made here at Flinders is the discovery of a nervous pathway that seems to be involved in causing the changes that take place within the pancreas and Sphincter of Oddi when alcohol is consumed.

The next step for the Flinders team will be to establish the characteristics of the nerves involved in the processes that contribute to acute pancreatitis so that a specific treatment can eventually be found.

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