The pancreas appears to be a major source of ghrelin during fetal development, but the ontogeny of ghrelin cells in the human pancreas and their developmental relationship with α- and β-cells remain largely unknown. In the present study, we examined the dynamics of ghrelin cell growth, colocalization of ghrelin with major pancreatic hormones and defined the similarities and differences among developmental patterns of ghrelin-, glucagon- and insulin-expressing cells in the human pancreas. To this end, paraffin-embedded pancreatic tissue sections from human embryos and fetuses were assessed by immunohistochemistry. Ghrelin-positive cells were first detected in the pancreas of 11-week-old fetuses. With advancing gestational age, both ghrelin- and glucagon-expressing cells were increasingly observed at the periphery of the developing islets, whereas insulin-containing cells were typically found in the islet core. Double immunohistochemistry showed that ghrelin-expressing cells were clearly separate from insulin-, somatostatin- and pancreatic polypeptide-containing cells. In contrast, cells coexpressing ghrelin and glucagon were sporadically detected during both the early and late fetal periods. Furthermore, morphometric analysis revealed a similar trend in the volume density of ghrelin- and glucagon-positive cells, and a contrasting pattern in β-cell density at specific time points during the development of the human pancreas. This study demonstrates that the developmental pattern of ghrelin cells, although clearly distinct, is quite similar to that of glucagon-expressing cells. The obtained findings indicate a close lineage relationship between these cell populations, a functional relationship between their secretory products and an auto/paracrine mode of ghrelin-glucagon interaction in pancreatic development.

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