To understand the development of the human pancreas better, we studied the expression and regulation of insulin, insulin-like growth factor-II (IGF-II) and transforming growth factor-α (TGF-α) genes in the human fetal pancreas and islet-like cell clusters (ICC) from the second trimester human fetuses. Northern blot analysis revealed an abundant expression of IGF-II, insulin and TGF-α mRNAs in the intact pancreas and the cultured ICCs. Furthermore, transcripts for insulin receptor, type-1 and -2 IGF receptors, and GH receptor could be amplified by polymerase chain reaction analysis from the pancreas and the ICCs. With in-situ hybridization, IGF-II mRNA was found in abundance in both the exocrine and endocrine pancreas, exceeding the amount of insulin mRNA. In ICCs, insulin mRNA-containing cells were present as small clusters in the periphery and in the centre of the clusters corresponding to the immunolocation of insulin. The ICCs also contained many epidermal growth factor-, insulin- and type-1 IGF receptor- and TGF-α-positive cells.
When the ICCs were cultured in the presence of various secretagogues, only dibutyryl cyclic AMP was found to up-regulate insulin mRNA (39%; P < 0·05). IGF-II mRNA was also under cyclic AMP-dependent regulation (threefold increase; P = 0·025). Furthermore, blocking the type-1 IGF receptor with a monoclonal receptor antibody drastically reduced insulin expression (87%; P = 0·005) and additionally down-regulated IGF-II mRNA (49%; P = 0·005). IGF-1, IGF-II, TGF-α or epidermal growth factor-receptor antibody had no significant effect on either insulin or IGF-II mRNA. Exogenous TGF-α inhibited the release of insulin by the ICCs. It was concluded that IGF-II and TGF-α may be involved in the regulation of islet growth and differentiation.