Objectives: Ghrelin, an endogenous ligand of the growth hormone secretagogue receptor (GHS-R), was recently identified in the stomach. Ghrelin is produced in a population of endocrine cells in the gastric mucosa, but expression in intestine, hypothalamus and testis has also been reported. Recent data indicate that ghrelin affects insulin secretion and plays a direct role in metabolic regulation and energy balance. On the basis of these findings, we decided to examine whether ghrelin is expressed in human pancreas. Specimens from fetal to adult human pancreas and stomach were studied by immunocytochemistry, for ghrelin and islet hormones, and in situ hybridisation, for ghrelin mRNA.
Results: We identified ghrelin expression in a separate population of islet cells in human fetal, neonatal, and adult pancreas. Pancreatic ghrelin cells were numerous from midgestation to early postnatally (10% of all endocrine cells). The cells were few, but regularly seen in adults as single cells at the islet periphery, in exocrine tissue, in ducts, and in pancreatic ganglia. Ghrelin cells did not express any of the known islet hormones. In fetuses, at midgestation, ghrelin cells in the pancreas clearly outnumbered those in the stomach.
Conclusions: Ghrelin is expressed in a quite prominent endocrine cell population in human fetal pancreas, and ghrelin expression in the pancreas precedes by far that in the stomach. Pancreatic ghrelin cells remain in adult islets at lower numbers. Ghrelin is not co-expressed with any known islet hormone, and the ghrelin cells may therefore constitute a new islet cell type.