Numerous studies conducted in a diversity of adult tissues have shown that certain stem cells are characterized by the expression of a protein known as the ABCG2 transporter (where ABC is ATP- binding cassette). In the adult pancreas, although various multipotent progenitors have been proposed, the ABCG2 marker has only been detected in the so-called ‘side population’ (a primitive haematopoietic cell population with a multipotential capacity). In the present study we sought to identify new ABCG2+ pancreatic cell populations and to explore whether they exhibit the properties of progenitor cells. We isolated and expanded mitoxantrone-resistant cells from pancreata of lactating rats by drug selection. These cells were characterized and maintained in different stages of differentiation using several media ‘cocktails’ plus Matrigel™ (BD Biosciences). Differentiation was assessed by RT–PCR (reverse transcription–PCR), immunocytochemistry, electron microscopy and ELISA. The expanded cell population demonstrated a phenotype of PaSCs (pancreatic stellate cells). Spontaneous cell clusters occurred during cell expansion and they showed weak expression of the transcription factor Pdx1 (pancreatic and duodenal homeobox 1). Moreover, the presence of inductive factors in the Matrigel plus exendin-4 led to an increase in Pdx1 and endocrine genes, such as insulin, islet amyloid polypeptide, glucagon, the glucose transporter GLUT2, chromogranin A and the convertases PC1/3 and PC2 were also detected. Immunocytochemical analysis showed co-localization of insulin and C-peptide, whereas ultrastructural studies revealed the presence of granules. Insulin secretion from cell clusters was detected in the cell culture medium. We identified a population of PaSCs that express the ABCG2+ transporter and have the capacity to transdifferentiate into insulin-producing cells. Although the potential therapeutic application remains to be tested, PaSCs could represent a future option for insulin replacement in diabetes research.

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