Recent progress on pancreatic stem/progenitor cell research has revealed that the putative multipotent pancreatic stem/progenitor cells and/or more committed beta cell precursors may persist in the pancreatic gland in adult life. The presence of immature pancreatic cells with stem cell-like properties offers the possibility of stimulating their in vivo expansion and differentiation or to use their ex vivo expanded progenies for beta cell replacement-based therapies for type 1 or 2 diabetes mellitus in humans. In addition, the transplantation of either insulin-producing beta cells derived from embryonic, fetal and other tissue-resident adult stem/progenitor cells or genetically modified adult stem/progenitor cells may also constitute alternative promising therapies for treating diabetic patients. The genetic and/or epigenetic alterations in putative pancreatic adult stem/progenitor cells and/or their early progenies may, however, contribute to their acquisition of a dysfunctional behaviour as well as their malignant transformation into pancreatic cancer stem/progenitor cells. More particularly, the activation of distinct tumorigenic signalling cascades, including the hedgehog, epidermal growth factor–epidermal growth factor receptor (EGF–EGFR) system, wingless ligand (Wnt)/β-catenin and/or stromal cell-derived factor-1 (SDF-1)–CXC chemokine receptor 4 (CXCR4) pathways may play a major role in the sustained growth, survival, metastasis and/or drug resistance of pancreatic cancer stem/progenitor cells and their further differentiated progenies. The combination of drugs that target the oncogenic elements in pancreatic cancer stem/progenitor cells and their microenvironment, with the conventional chemotherapeutic regimens, could represent promising therapeutic strategies. These novel targeted therapies should lead to the development of more effective treatments of locally advanced and metastatic pancreatic cancers, which remain incurable with current therapies.
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Funding: MM and SKB are supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Defense (PC04502, OC04110) and the National Institutes of Health (CA78590, CA111294, CA131944 and CA1133774).
Competing interests: None.
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