What Is Trypsin and What Does It Do?

Medically Reviewed By Darragh O'Carroll, MD
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Trypsin is an enzyme made by the pancreas that helps break down dietary protein in the digestive tract. Currently, researchers are studying its role in wound healing and its effects on cancer. Abnormal levels of trypsin in the blood may signal cystic fibrosis, pancreatitis, or problems absorbing nutrients. 

This article discusses trypsin, its role in the body, what abnormal levels mean, and what research can tell us about potential other uses. 

What is trypsin?

A person bandaging a wound on their leg
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Trypsin is an enzyme in the digestive tract that forms in the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen behind the stomach, responsible for making several hormones and enzymes.

Enzymes are proteins that help complete chemical reactions in the body. Sometimes, they are responsible for building substances. Other times, they break substances down.

Proteolytic enzymes are a group of enzymes that form in the pancreas. These enzymes include:

  • trypsin
  • chymotrypsin
  • carboxypeptidase

Trypsinogen is the inactive form of trypsin when it is in the pancreas. When the body needs trypsin, the pancreas secretes trypsinogen through the common bile duct into the gastrointestinal system. In the small intestines, trypsinogen activates and becomes trypsin.

What does trypsin do?

When you consume protein, trypsin works with pepsin and chymotrypsin to break it down into usable amino acids.

Your body uses amino acids for:

  • producing hormones
  • growing muscles
  • repairing tissues such as skin, muscles, bones, cartilage, and blood
  • building neurotransmitters in the brain

What do abnormal trypsin levels indicate?

Abnormal levels of trypsin in the blood can be either too high or too low. These levels may indicate an underlying medical condition.

Cystic fibrosis

High levels of trypsin in a newborn baby may indicate cystic fibrosis. Shortly after birth, newborns have a series of blood tests, one of which includes checking trypsin levels. 

Cystic fibrosis is a condition that causes high levels of mucus formation. This mucus can clog the common bile duct, blocking trypsin from leaving the pancreas and entering the digestive tract. This results in a high level of trypsin entering the bloodstream.

Several other factors can alter the test results, so an abnormally high result is not a definitive diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. Instead, it is an indication that further testing is necessary.

Learn more about cystic fibrosis.

Pancreatitis

2011 review of studies on mice suggests that trypsin may be one factor in the development or progression of pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which can cause:

When the pancreas experiences inflammation, the pancreatic enzymes — including trypsin — can leak into the blood. This leak causes elevated levels of trypsin.

Mild cases of pancreatitis may resolve in a few days. However, people experiencing severe pancreatitis need IV antibiotics and hydration.

Severe cases may become chronic and can cause severe complications without treatment.

Learn more about pancreatitis.

Malabsorption

Low levels of trypsin in the digestive tract can lead to an inability to absorb nutrients efficiently. This condition is malabsorption

The breakdown of dietary protein starts in the acidic environment of the stomach. In the small intestines, the proteolytic enzymes finish the digestion by breaking the protein down into amino acids that the body can absorb. 

Malabsorption can result from conditions like cystic fibrosis and chronic pancreatitis. Symptoms of malabsorption may include:

Treatment depends on the underlying cause of the malabsorption.

Learn more about malabsorption.

What are some potential uses for trypsin?

Research is ongoing into potential uses for trypsin.

Wound healing

Researchers have explored the use of trypsin in wound care. Some studies show that trypsin helps break down dead tissue proteins and helps with the debridement process. Trypsin supplements, both oral and topical, may help speed wound recovery. 

Part of wound care is debridement, which involves helping the body remove dead tissue while the new tissue forms underneath. Chronic wounds can lead to low quality of life, morbidity, and mortality. These complications increase the need for additional treatments.

Cancer treatment

Researchers have explored the possibility of using trypsin as a cancer treatment. However, the studies are not current and have produced mixed results. Some studies find that trypsin may slow the growth of tumors. In contrast, other studies suggest that trypsin can promote the spread of cancer.

In 2003, researchers studied 72 people with gastric adenocarcinoma and 49 people with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. The authors concluded that trypsin suppresses the growth of tumors in these carcinomas. 

However, a 2006 study states that trypsin promotes the growth, invasion, and spread of colon and rectal cancer

Due to the mixed results, trypsin is not currently in use as a cancer treatment. In the future, additional studies may help increase our understanding of trypsin’s involvement in cancer.

Industrial use

More recent research investigates the possible use of proteolytic enzymes for industrial processes, such as:

  • food fermentation
  • laundry detergent
  • pharmaceuticals

Summary

The pancreas, a small organ in the abdomen, makes several proteolytic enzymes that aid digestion. Trypsin is one of these enzymes responsible for digesting proteins in the small intestines.

Abnormal levels of trypsin correlate with cystic fibrosis, pancreatitis, and malabsorption.

Research hopes to find other uses for trypsin, such as aiding in cancer treatment, wound healing, and industrial processes.

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Medical Reviewer: Darragh O'Carroll, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 2
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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