The exocrine pancreas synthesizes and secretes large amounts of digestive proteases as inactive precursor zymogens. Under physiological conditions a variety of cellular defense mechanisms protect the pancreatic acinar cell against a premature and intracellular activation of these zymogens. When these defenses fail, pancreatic autodigestion is initiated and acute pancreatitis can develop. A number of experimental observations suggest that extra- as well as intracellular calcium concentrations play an important part in the initiation of pancreatic protease activation, but the intracellular signaling events that regulate this process are unknown. Using a model system in which we used pancreatic acini (freshly prepared functional units of living acinar cells), we were able to simulate the conditions found during experimental pancreatitis in rodents. By means of a cell permeant fluorescent trypsin substrate we could demonstrate in these acini that premature protease activation is initiated at the apical acinar cell pole and occurs only in the presence of secretagogue concentrations that exceed those required for a maximum secretory response. By combining this technique with fluorescence ratio imaging for the Ca2+-sensitive dye fura-2, we could further show that this protease activation is highly dependent on the spatial as well as the temporal distribution of the corresponding Ca2+release from stores within the same subcellular compartment and that it is not propagated to neighboring acinar cells.
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