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Objectives: Pancreatic cancer has a very poor prognosis, largely due to its propensity for early local and distant spread. Histopathologically, most pancreatic cancers are characterized by a prominent stromal/fibrous reaction in and around tumor tissue. The aims of this study were to determine whether (1) the cells responsible for the formation of the stromal reaction in human pancreatic cancers are activated pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs) and (2) an interaction exists between pancreatic cancer cells and PSCs that may facilitate local and distant invasion of tumor.

Methods: Serial sections of human pancreatic cancer tissue were stained for desmin and glial fibrillary acidic protein (stellate cell selective markers) and [alpha]-smooth muscle actin ([alpha]SMA), a marker of activated PSC activation, by immunohistochemistry, and for collagen using Sirius Red. Correlation between the extent of positive staining for collagen and [alpha]SMA was assessed by morphometry. The cellular source of collagen in stromal areas was identified using dual staining methodology, ie, immunostaining for [alpha]SMA and in situ hybridization for procollagen [alpha]1I mRNA. The possible interaction between pancreatic cancer cells and PSCs was assessed in vitro by exposing cultured rat PSCs to control medium or conditioned medium from 2 pancreatic cancer cell lines (PANC-1 and MiaPaCa-2) for 24 hours. PSC activation was assessed by cell proliferation and [alpha]SMA expression.

Results: Stromal areas of human pancreatic cancer stained strongly positive for the stellate cell selective markers desmin and GFAP (indicating the presence of PSCs), for [alpha]SMA (suggesting that the PSCs were in their activated state) and for collagen. Morphometric analysis demonstrated a close correlation (r = 0.77; P < 0.04; 8 paired sections) between the extent of PSC activation and collagen deposition. Procollagen mRNA expression was localized to [alpha]SMA-positive cells in stromal areas indicating that activated PSCs were the predominant source of collagen in stromal areas. Exposure of PSCs to pancreatic cancer cell secretions in vitro resulted in PSC activation as indicated by significantly increased cell proliferation and [alpha]SMA expression.

Conclusions: Activated PSCs are present in the stromal reaction in pancreatic cancers and are responsible for the production of stromal collagen. PSC function is influenced by pancreatic cancer cells. Interactions between tumor cells and stromal cells (PSCs) may play an important role in the pathobiology of pancreatic cancer.

(C) 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.