Parathyroid hormone provides a powerful mechanism for controlling extracellular calcium and phosphate concentrations by regulating intestinal reabsorption, renal excretion, and exchange between the extracellular fluid and bone of these ions. Excess activity of the parathyroid gland causes rapid absorption of calcium salts from the bones, with resultant hypercalcemia in the extracellular fluid; conversely, hypofunction of the parathyroid glands causes hypocalcemia, often with resultant tetany.
Physiologic Anatomy of the Parathyroid Glands. Normallythere are four parathyroid glands in humans; they are located immediately behind the thyroid gland—one behind each of the upper and each of the lower poles of the thyroid. Each parathyroid gland is about 6 mil-limeters long, 3 millimeters wide, and 2 millimeters thick and has a macroscopic appearance of dark brown fat. The parathyroid glands are difficult to locate during thyroid operations because they often look like just another lobule of the thyroid gland. For this reason, before the importance of these glands was gen-erally recognized, total or subtotal thyroidectomy fre-quently resulted in removal of the parathyroid glands as well.
Removal of half the parathyroid glands usually causes no major physiologic abnormalities. However, removal of three of the four normal glands causes transient hypoparathyroidism. But even a small quantity of remaining parathyroid tissue is usually capable of hypertrophying satisfactorily to perform the func-tion of all the glands.
The parathyroid gland of the adult human being, shown in Figure 79–9, contains mainly chief cells and a small to moderate number ofoxyphil cells, but oxyphil cells are absent in many animals and in young humans. The chief cells are believed to secrete most, if not all, of the PTH. The function of the oxyphil cells is not certain, but they are believed to be modified or depleted chief cells that no longer secrete hormone.
Chemistry of Parathyroid Hormone. PTH has been isolatedin a pure form. It is first synthesized on the ribosomes in the form of a preprohormone, a polypeptide chain of 110 amino acids. This is cleaved first to a prohormone with 90 amino acids, then to the hormone itself with 84 amino acids by the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus, and finally is packaged in secretory granules in the cytoplasm of the cells. The final hormone has a molecular weight of about 9500. Smaller compounds with as few as 34 amino acids adjacent to the N terminus of the molecule have also been isolated from the parathyroid glands that exhibit full PTH activity. In fact, because the kidneys rapidly remove the whole 84-amino acid hormone within minutes but fail to remove many of the fragments for hours, a large share of the hormonal activity is caused by the fragments.