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Diabetologia. 2013 May;56(5):1047-56. doi: 10.1007/s00125-013-2847-7. Epub 2013 Feb 13.

Species-specific vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2) expression in mammalian pancreatic beta cells: implications for optimising radioligand-based human beta cell mass (BCM) imaging in animal models.

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Department of Molecular Neuroscience, Institute of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Philipps University Marburg, Robert-Koch-Straße 8, 35037 Marburg, Germany.



Imaging of beta cell mass (BCM) is a major challenge in diabetes research. The vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2) is abundantly expressed in human beta cells. Radiolabelled analogues of tetrabenazine (TBZ; a low-molecular-weight, cell-permeant VMAT2-selective ligand) have been employed for pancreatic islet imaging in humans. Since reports on TBZ-based VMAT2 imaging in rodent pancreas have been fraught with confusion, we compared VMAT2 gene expression patterns in the mouse, rat, pig and human pancreas, to identify appropriate animal models with which to further validate and optimise TBZ imaging in humans.


We used a panel of highly sensitive VMAT2 antibodies developed against equivalently antigenic regions of the transporter from each species in combination with immunostaining for insulin and species-specific in situ hybridisation probes. Individual pancreatic islets were obtained by laser-capture microdissection and subjected to analysis of mRNA expression of VMAT2.


The VMAT2 protein was not expressed in beta cells in the adult pancreas of common mouse or rat laboratory strains, in contrast to its expression in beta cells (but not other pancreatic endocrine cell types) in the pancreas of pigs and humans. VMAT2- and tyrosine hydroxylase co-positive (catecholaminergic) innervation was less abundant in humans than in rodents. VMAT2-positive mast cells were identified in the pancreas of all species.


Primates and pigs are suitable models for TBZ imaging of beta cells. Rodents, because of a complete lack of VMAT2 expression in the endocrine pancreas, are a 'null' model for assessing interference with BCM measurements by VMAT2-positive mast cells and sympathetic innervation in the pancreas.

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