The identity of pancreatic stem/progenitor cells is still under discussion. They were suggested to derive from the pancreatic ductal epithelium and/or islets. Here we report that rat pancreatic stellate cells (PSC), which are thought to contribute to pancreatic fibrosis, have stem cell characteristics. PSC reside in islets and between acini and display a gene expression pattern similar to umbilical cord blood stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells. Cytokine treatment of isolated PSC induced the expression of typical hepatocyte markers. The PSC-derived hepatocyte-like cells expressed endodermal proteins such as bile salt export pump along with the mesodermal protein vimentin. The transplantation of culture-activated PSC from enhanced green fluorescent protein-expressing rats into wild type rats after partial hepatectomy in the presence of 2-acetylaminofluorene revealed that PSC were able to reconstitute large areas of the host liver through differentiation into hepatocytes and cholangiocytes. This developmental fate of transplanted PSC was confirmed by fluorescence in situ hybridization of chromosome Y after gender-mismatched transplantation of male PSC into female rats. Transplanted PSC displayed long-lasting survival, whereas muscle fibroblasts were unable to integrate into the host liver. The differentiation potential of PSC was further verified by the transplantation of clonally expanded PSC. PSC clones maintained the expression of stellate cell and stem cell markers and preserved their differentiation potential, which indicated self-renewal potential of PSC. These findings demonstrate that PSC have stem cell characteristics and can contribute to the regeneration of injured organs through differentiation across tissue boundaries.
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