What Are Ductal Cells?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 21 May 2020
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Ductal cells line the pancreatic ducts and release bicarbonate to control acid levels in the digestive tract, providing protection to the intestines. These specialized cells arise from epithelial cells during embryonic development and migrate into place along with the rest of the structure of the pancreas. Throughout a patient’s life, the layers of ductal cells renew over time as older cells die and are replaced by new ones. Errors in this process can result in a malignancy that may require medical treatment.

The body’s pancreatic ducts provide drainage from the pancreas to the duodenum. These ducts carry secretions produced by the pancreas to facilitate digestion. Because the pancreas can produce very harsh compounds to break down complex foods, bicarbonate balances the secretions to ensure that they do not damage the duodenum and intestines as they move through the body. Secretions from the ductal cells are controlled by a hormone called secretin, which also plays a role in some other key physical processes.

Fluid released from the ductal cells mixes with food to create chyme. The acids from the pancreas break down the food to make individual compounds accessible to the body, while the bicarbonate creates a protective layer to reduce damage caused by acid. As the chyme moves through the intestinal tract, the body can extract useful nutrients and leave waste products in place for elimination. This process involves interactions between a number of chemicals secreted by the body, along with help from beneficial bacteria that consume foods and produce useful byproducts.

Errors in cell division within the pancreatic duct lining can cause tumors to develop. These may invade neighboring tissues if they are malignant, and can also create blockages that limit pancreatic function. Medical imaging studies, including scans with contrast to follow secretions from the pancreas, can be used to identify such growths. Treatment options for the patient may include surgery to remove the tumor, along with chemotherapy and radiation to limit the growth of malignant cells.

Other areas of the body also contain ducts, like the breasts and the drainage system for the eyes. These are also lined with cells, but they are an example of regular epithelium, rather than specialized ductal cells that produce secretions. Some people may secrete ductal fluid from the breasts when they are not breastfeeding, and it can sometimes be an indicator of cancer. A doctor may recommend testing to check the ductal lining for signs of malignant cells.

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