The changing face of the exocrine pancreas in cystic fibrosis: pancreatic sufficiency, pancreatitis and genotype

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Cystic fibrosis (CF) is the most frequent cause of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in childhood. The cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene encodes CFTR protein that functions as cyclic AMP-dependent chloride channel allowing the passage of anions and secondarily water into the lumen of pancreatic ducts. Luminal chlorides are exchanged for bicarbonates. The lack of CFTR channel or its disrupted function (being the consequence of CFTR gene mutations) results in reduced volume of more acidic secretion. It has been suggested that such a situation leads to the precipitation of highly concentrated protein-containing secretion with obstruction and organ damage. The intensity of this process determines the progression of the disease. Steatorrhea is the significant symptom of classical form of CF. Residual pancreatic secretion in a subset of patients, however, allows for normal lipid digestion and absorption. Previous cross-sectional clinical studies estimated that about 85–90% of CF patients in preschool, school and older age are pancreatic insufficient. More frequent detection of mild and nonclassic forms of CF leads to higher frequency of pancreatic sufficiency (PS). The potential decline of exocrine pancreatic function, however, should be always considered. All PS patients with at least one severe or unknown CFTR mutation should be longitudinally assessed for the progression of pancreatic dysfunction. Recurrent acute and chronic pancreatitis is not a rare clinical condition in PS patients with PS: it might be the presenting symptom, even preceding CF diagnosis by several years. Potential appearance of this complication in individuals with pancreatic insufficiency demands elucidation.

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