The presence of pancreatic stem cells (PnSCs) has not been firmly demonstrated in the human or animal pancreas. Previous reports have suggested that ductal and acinar structures in the exocrine pancreas can be a potential source of progenitor cells. More recently, immature insulin precursors in the periphery of human islets have been found to self-replicate and differentiate to endocrine cells in vitro. Transplantation of these cells under the kidney capsule improves the diabetic state in mice. The controversy surrounding where PnSCs reside could be resolved if a specific marker were to be found that allowed their identification, purification, and directed differentiation to endocrine cells. We have identified in human pancreas cells positive for the stage-specific embryonic antigen 4 (SSEA4), a stem cell marker. These cells also express ductal, pancreatic progenitor, and stem cell protein markers. Interestingly, some of the SSEA4(+) cells scattered in the ducts do not show a ductal cell phenotype. SSEA4(+)-sorted cells formed aggregate-like spheres in culture and robustly differentiated to pancreatic hormone-expressing cells in conditions of high glucose concentration and B27 supplementation. We hypothesize that SSEA4(+) cells or a subpopulation of those cells residing in the pancreatic ducts may be the elusive PnSCs, and in this case, SSEA4 may represent a potential surface antigen marker for human PnSCs. The discovery of specific markers for the identification and purification of human PnSCs would greatly facilitate studies aimed at the expansion of these cells and the development of targeting tools for their potential induction to insulin-producing cells.
Keywords: SSEA4; cellular biology; pancreas; regeneration.