Biochemical Journal

Research article

Glucocorticoids suppress β-cell development and induce hepatic metaplasia in embryonic pancreas

Chia-Ning SHEN, Jonathan R. SECKL, Jonathan M. W. SLACK, David TOSH


Elevated glucocorticoids are associated with low birth weight and fetal ‘programming’ of hypertension and glucose intolerance. In the present paper, we show that treatment of fetal rats with dexamethasone during the last week of gestation reduces the insulin content of their pancreatic β-cells. We reproduce this effect of dexamethasone in vitro using organ cultures of mouse embryonic pancreas, and show that it is associated with an elevation of expression of the transcription factor C/EBPβ (CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein β) and a reduction of the transcription factor Pdx-1 (pancreatic duodenal homeobox-1). Dexamethasone also induces the appearance of hepatocyte-like cells in organ cultures of pancreas, based on the expression of liver markers, albumin, α1-antitrypsin and transthyretin. Evidence that C/EBPβ is responsible for compromising the differentiation and later function of β-cells is obtained from its effects on the β-cell-like cell line RIN-5F. Transfection with a constitutive form of C/EBPβ suppresses insulin formation, whereas introduction of a dominant-negative inhibitor of C/EBPβ has no effect. We conclude that dexamethasone inhibits insulin expression in pancreatic β-cells via a mechanism involving down-regulation of Pdx-1 and induction of C/EBPβ. This mechanism may operate in combination with other changes during fetal programming, leading to type 2 diabetes in later life.

  • CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein β (C/EBPβ)
  • fetal programming
  • glucocorticoids
  • hepatic transdifferentiation
  • insulin
  • pancreatic duodenal homeobox-1 (Pdx-1)


  • Abbreviations used: C/EBPβ, CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein β; DAPI, 4,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole; Dex, dexamethasone; DTT, dithiothreitol; GFP, green fluorescent protein; HBSS, Hanks balanced salt solution; 11β-HSD2, 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2; LAP, liver activator protein; LIP, liver inhibitory protein; PBS-A, PBS (Dulbecco's solution A); Pdx-1, pancreatic duodenal homeobox-1; PFA, paraformaldehyde; RT, reverse transcriptase; TRITC, tetramethylrhodamine β-isothiocyanate.