While the morphology and function of cells of the exocrine and endocrine pancreas have been studied over several centuries, one important cell type in the gland, the pancreatic stellate cell (PSC), had remained undiscovered until as recently as 20 years ago. Even after its first description in 1982, it was to be another 16 years before its biology could begin to be studied, because it was only in 1998 that methods were developed to isolate and culture PSCs from rodent and human pancreas. PSCs are now known to play a critical role in pancreatic fibrosis, a consistent histological feature of two major diseases of the pancreas-chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. In health, PSCs maintain normal tissue architecture via regulation of the synthesis and degradation of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins. Recent studies have also implied other functions for PSCs as progenitor cells, immune cells or intermediaries in exocrine pancreatic secretion in humans. During pancreatic injury, PSCs transform from their quiescent phase into an activated, myofibroblast-like phenotype that secretes excessive amounts of ECM proteins leading to the fibrosis of chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. An ever increasing number of factors that stimulate and/or inhibit PSC activation via paracrine and autocrine pathways are being identified and characterized. It is also now established that PSCs interact closely with pancreatic cancer cells to facilitate cancer progression. Based on these findings, several therapeutic strategies have been examined in experimental models of chronic pancreatitis as well as pancreatic cancer, in a bid to inhibit/retard PSC activation and thereby alleviate chronic pancreatitis or reduce tumor growth in pancreatic cancer. The challenge that remains is to translate these pre-clinical developments into clinically applicable treatments for patients with chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.
Keywords: chronic pancreatic; desmoplastic reaction; pancreatic cancer; pancreatic fibrosis; review; stellate cells.