Background & aims: In transgenic mice overexpressing transforming growth factor (TGF)-alpha in the exocrine pancreas, progressive pancreatic fibrosis and a transdifferentiation of acinar cells to duct-like cells occurs. The present study was undertaken to analyze this transdifferentiation process.
Methods: Pancreatic specimens were characterized using light microscopy and immunohistochemistry. Expression of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and TGF-alpha was evaluated with slot blot and Western analysis. To identify other generic events, K-ras mutations were screened with an enriched polymerase chain reaction approach and p53 expression was detected with immunohistochemistry.
Results: Morphological examination revealed an aggregation of interlobular fibroblasts and a decrease in acinar cell height starting at day 14 after birth. In older animals, these acinar cells change to duct-like cells, which form tubular structures and express ductal markers. Evidence for dysplastic changes was found in 12 of 21 TGF-alpha transgenic mice older than 1 year. We also observed four malignant pancreatic tumors, which were multicentric and originated from dysplastic tubular complexes. They displayed a mixed cystic-papillary phenotype strongly positive for carbonic anhydrase activity. EGFR expression progressively increased in the transition from acinar to duct-like and transformed cells. Activating K-ras mutations could not be detected; however, tubular complexes and tumors displayed increased immunoreactivity for nuclear p53.
Conclusions: These data suggest an involvement of the TGF-alpha/EGFR pathway in conjunction with other yet unknown events in pancreatic tumor development. Furthermore, these observations are in favor of an acinar-ductal carcinoma sequence. Thus, these transgenic animals will be useful to define genetic alterations associated with a transition from acinar cells to a neoplastic ductal phenotype.