Pancreatic lipase is a water-soluble enzyme secreted by the pancreas. Like other lipases, its function is to break down lipids (fats) in the intestinal tract. Unlike other pancreatic enzymes, such as trypsinogen and chymotrypsin, however, it is secreted in pancreatic “juice” as an active enzyme and doesn’t need to undergo conversion to digest lipids. In addition, this enzyme possesses the ability to break down dietary fats via hydrolysis by breaking hydrogen bonds.
One of the primary tasks of pancreatic lipase is to break down triglycerides. This is critical since these particular lipids cannot be absorbed through the intestinal lining without first undergoing hydrolysis. The enzyme acts as a catalyst to promote the conversion of triglycerides into 2-monoglyceride and fatty acids. The successful hydrolysis of triglycerides is dependent on the adequate availability of bile salts provided by the liver.
Excessive production of this enzyme may indicate the presence of certain disorders, most notably inflammation of the pancreas, or pancreatitis. Elevated levels also occur with bowel obstruction, peptic ulcers, or kidney disease, and are also a temporary side effect of some medications, like morphine and codeine. On the other hand, diminished levels may suggest that some cells of the pancreas are irreversibly damaged. Pancreatic lipase monitoring is also used to help diagnose Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis, and celiac disease.
People who are concerned with losing weight may be more than familiar with this enzyme and what it does. That’s because several dieting products have surfaced that boast the ability to block its activity in order to inhibit the absorption of fats. In fact, orlistat is a prescription medication that prevents up to 30% of dietary fats, including triglycerides, from being absorbed through the intestines. This results in a reduction in total calorie intake and, subsequently, weight loss.
Researchers have learned about a few other unique properties of pancreatic lipase by studying hibernating squirrels. While this enzyme is normally found in the intestines, it is found in great concentration in the hearts of these animals, but only from late fall until early spring. Apparently, after completing the job of digesting dietary fats for storage during the big sleep, the enzyme takes up residence in the heart to help it function while body temperature and oxygen levels dramatically decline. What is particularly interesting about this is that most other enzymes are rendered inactive below certain temperatures, while this one retains about 30% of its activity.