Unique arrangement of alpha- and beta-cells in human islets of Langerhans

Diabetes. 2010 May;59(5):1202-10. doi: 10.2337/db09-1177. Epub 2010 Feb 25.


Objective: It is generally admitted that the endocrine cell organization in human islets is different from that of rodent islets. However, a clear description of human islet architecture has not yet been reported. The aim of this work was to describe our observations on the arrangement of human islet cells.

Research design and methods: Human pancreas specimens and isolated islets were processed for histology. Sections were analyzed by fluorescence microscopy after immunostaining for islet hormones and endothelial cells.

Results: In small human islets (40-60 mum in diameter), beta-cells had a core position, alpha-cells had a mantle position, and vessels laid at their periphery. In bigger islets, alpha-cells had a similar mantle position but were found also along vessels that penetrate and branch inside the islets. As a consequence of this organization, the ratio of beta-cells to alpha-cells was constantly higher in the core than in the mantle part of the islets, and decreased with increasing islet diameter. This core-mantle segregation of islet cells was also observed in type 2 diabetic donors but not in cultured isolated islets. Three-dimensional analysis revealed that islet cells were in fact organized into trilaminar epithelial plates, folded with different degrees of complexity and bordered by vessels on both sides. In epithelial plates, most beta-cells were located in a central position but frequently showed cytoplasmic extensions between outlying non-beta-cells.

Conclusions: Human islets have a unique architecture allowing all endocrine cells to be adjacent to blood vessels and favoring heterologous contacts between beta- and alpha-cells, while permitting homologous contacts between beta-cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Glucagon-Secreting Cells / cytology*
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / cytology*
  • Islets of Langerhans / cytology*
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Middle Aged
  • Young Adult