The neuroendocrine phenotype, cellular plasticity, and the search for genetic switches: redefining the diffuse neuroendocrine system.

: The term neuroendocrine has been used to define cells that secrete their products in a regulated manner, in response to a specific stimulus. The neuroendocrine system includes neurons and endocrine cells sharing a common phenotypic program characterized by the expression of markers such as neuropeptides, chromogranins, neuropeptide processing enzymes SPC2 and SPC3 (subtilase-like pro-protein convertases) or dense core secretory granules. Various theories such as the APUD (amine precursor uptake decarboxylation) concept, the diffuse neuroendocrine system (DNES) or the paraneuron concept have been put forth to classify neuroendocrine cells as a cohesive group. Neuroendocrine characteristics have been used as evidence of a common embryological origin for normal and neoplastic cells. However, it is now recognized that neuroendocrine characteristics can be observed in various cell types, such as immunocytes, that are not of a common embryological origin with either neurons or endocrine cells. We propose to redefine previous "neuroendocrine" concepts to include the notion that activation of specific genetic switches can lead to the expression of a partial or full neuroendocrine phenotype in a variety of cell types, including immune cells.

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