Background: Apoptosis is a well-documented pathway for islet cell death. One potential mechanism is overexpression of death-promoting Bax compared with antiapoptotic Bcl-2 in islets.
Methods: We isolated islets from 10 human pancreata and measured the expression of Bax mRNA and Bcl-2 mRNA by real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction; islet and pancreas expression of Bax, Bcl-2, activated caspase-3, and cleaved poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase were also assessed by immunohistochemistry. Islet cell apoptosis was evaluated by terminal deoxynucleotide transferase-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling (TUNEL) assay and by flow cytometry.
Results: The mean (+/-SE) level of Bax mRNA was 336+/-79 copies per nanogram of total RNA, and the level of Bcl-2 mRNA was 36+/-10 (P=0.001). A positive correlation existed between islet expression of Bax mRNA and Bcl-2 mRNA (P=0.001). The islet Bax to Bcl-2 ratio was 10.8+/-1.3 and 1.71+/-0.3 for the spleens (P=0.0001). Bax mRNA (P=0.04), but not Bcl-2 mRNA, was expressed at a higher level in islets compared with spleens. Human islets contained large numbers of cells expressing Bax protein, whereas only infrequent islet cells expressed Bcl-2 protein, activated caspase-3, and poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase. The apoptotic index was 5% by TUNEL assay, and the percentage of apoptotic islet cells was 9.7+/-2.5% by flow cytometry. Sections of human pancreas before islet isolation showed islet staining for Bax but not Bcl-2.
Conclusions: Our finding that isolated human islets express Bax at a higher level compared with Bcl-2 suggests a molecular mechanism for islet cell death by apoptosis. We hypothesize that reducing islet expression of Bax, or regulating its activation, will help preserve islet cell mass after islet transplantation.