, Volume 52, Issue 3, pp 486-493
Date: 19 Dec 2008

Ghrelin-producing epsilon cells in the developing and adult human pancreas



While the mechanisms of specification and the reciprocal relationships of the four types of endocrine cell (alpha, beta, delta and pancreatic polypeptide cells) within the human endocrine pancreas are well described in adults and during fetal development, ghrelin-immunoreactive cells (epsilon cells) remain poorly understood.


We studied epsilon cells in 24 human fetal pancreases between 11 and 39 weeks of development and in 32 pancreases from adult organ donors.


We observed single epsilon cells scattered in primitive exocrine tissue from gestational week 13 in developing pancreas. Later in the developmental process, epsilon cells started to aggregate into clusters. From gestational week 21, epsilon cells were observed located around developing islets, forming an almost continuous layer at the peripheral rim of the islets. They remain localised on the mantle of the islets, although at different amounts, in the adult pancreas. Co-production of ghrelin with insulin, glucagon or somatostatin was not detected during fetal development. Co-production with pancreatic polypeptide was evident sporadically. Epsilon cells co-produced NK2 homeobox 2 and ISL LIM homeobox 1, but not NK6 homeobox 1 and paired box 6. A quantitative analysis was performed in the adult pancreas: there was an average of 1.17 + 1.17 epsilon cells per islet, the relative epsilon cell volume was 0.14 + 0.16% and the epsilon cell mass was 0.13 + 0.15 g. Neither sex nor age affected the epsilon cell mass, although there was a significant inverse correlation with BMI.


During fetal development epsilon cells show an ontogenetic and morphogenetic pattern that is distinct from that of alpha and beta cells.