Previous studies have suggested a role for glucocorticoids in the differentiation of the acinar pancreas. We have now used the rat tumor cell line AR42J, derived from the acinar pancreas, to directly study this effect of glucocorticoids in vitro. The steroid hormones dexamethasone, corticosterone, aldosterone, and progesterone, but not estrogen, increased both the amylase content and the number of secretory granules of these cells. The potencies of the steroids were directly related to their effectiveness as glucocorticoids; dexamethasone was the most potent hormone and gave maximal effects at 100 nM. Morphometric analyses revealed that dexamethasone increased the volume density of granules 5.5-fold from 0.20 +/- 0.08 to 1.10 +/- 0.20% (n = 4) of the cytoplasmic volume. Dexamethasone treatment also increased the volume density of rough endoplasmic reticulum 2.4-fold from 1.20 +/- 0.09 to 2.86 +/- 0.30% (n = 5) of the cytoplasmic volume. After 48 h of dexamethasone treatment the cellular content of amylase increase eightfold from 2.8 +/- 0.4 to 22.6 +/- 3.8 U/mg protein (n = 6). This effect of dexamethasone was discernible after 12 h of incubation and approached maximal stimulation after 72 h of incubation. The increases in cellular amylase content were due to increased amylase synthesis as shown by specific immunoprecipitation of [35S]methionine-labeled proteins. Moreover, in vitro translation of cellular mRNA indicated that dexamethasone treatment increased amylase mRNA. Dexamethasone treatment also led to increased secretion of amylase in response to the secretagogue cholecystokinin. These data indicate, therefore, that glucocorticoids induce a more highly differentiated phenotype in AR42J pancreatic cells, and they suggest that glucocorticoids act via the enhanced transcription of specific mRNAs for acinar cell proteins.

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