Multipotential Nestin-Positive Stem Cells Isolated From Adult Pancreatic Islets Differentiate Ex Vivo Into Pancreatic Endocrine, Exocrine, and Hepatic Phenotypes

  1. Henryk Zulewski1,
  2. Elizabeth J. Abraham2,
  3. Melissa J. Gerlach2,
  4. Philip B. Daniel2,
  5. Wolfgang Moritz3,
  6. Beat Müller4,
  7. Mario Vallejo5,
  8. Melissa K. Thomas2 and
  9. Joel F. Habener2
  1. 1Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes, University Hospital of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
  2. 2Laboratory of Molecular Endocrinology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
  3. 3Department of Surgery, University Hospital of Zürich, Zürich
  4. 4Division of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Metabolism, Department of Internal Medicine, University Hospitals, Basel, Switzerland
  5. 5Institute for Biomedical Research, Superior Council of Scientific Research, Madrid, Spain


    The endocrine cells of the rat pancreatic islets of Langerhans, including insulin-producing β-cells, turn over every 40–50 days by processes of apoptosis and the proliferation and differentiation of new islet cells (neogenesis) from progenitor epithelial cells located in the pancreatic ducts. However, the administration to rats of islet trophic factors such as glucose or glucagon-like peptide 1 for 48 h results in a doubling of islet cell mass, suggesting that islet progenitor cells may reside within the islets themselves. Here we show that rat and human pancreatic islets contain a heretofore unrecognized distinct population of cells that express the neural stem cell–specific marker nestin. Nestin-positive cells within pancreatic islets express neither the hormones insulin, glucagon, somatostatin, or pancreatic polypeptide nor the markers of vascular endothelium or neurons, such as collagen IV and galanin. Focal regions of nestin-positive cells are also identified in large, small, and centrolobular ducts of the rat pancreas. Nestin-positive cells in the islets and in pancreatic ducts are distinct from ductal epithelium because they do not express the ductal marker cytokeratin 19 (CK19). After their isolation, these nestin-positive cells have an unusually extended proliferative capacity when cultured in vitro (∼8 months), can be cloned repeatedly, and appear to be multipotential. Upon confluence, they are able to differentiate into cells that express liver and exocrine pancreas markers, such as α-fetoprotein and pancreatic amylase, and display a ductal/endocrine phenotype with expression of CK19, neural-specific cell adhesion molecule, insulin, glucagon, and the pancreas/duodenum specific homeodomain transcription factor, IDX-1. We propose that these nestin-positive islet-derived progenitor (NIP) cells are a distinct population of cells that reside within pancreatic islets and may participate in the neogenesis of islet endocrine cells. The NIP cells that also reside in the pancreatic ducts may be contributors to the established location of islet progenitor cells. The identification of NIP cells within the pancreatic islets themselves suggest possibilities for treatment of diabetes, whereby NIP cells isolated from pancreas biopsies could be expanded ex vivo and transplanted into the donor/recipient.


    • Address correspondence and reprint requests to Joel F. Habener, Laboratory of Molecular Endocrinology, Massachusetts General Hospital, 55 Fruit St., WEL320, Boston, MA 02114. E-mail: jhabener{at}

      Received for publication 25 January 2000 and accepted in revised form 15 November 2000.

      H.Z. and E.J.A. contributed equally to this work.

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