ARTICLE ABSTRACTPancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) tumors can originate either from acinar or ductal cells in the adult pancreas. We re-analyze multiple pancreas and PDAC single-cell RNA-seq datasets and find a subset of nonmalignant acinar cells, which we refer to as acinar edge (AE) cells, whose transcriptomes highly diverge from a typical acinar cell in each dataset. Genes upregulated among AE cells are enriched for transcriptomic signatures of pancreatic progenitors, acinar dedifferentiation, and several oncogenic programs. AE-upregulated genes are upregulated in human PDAC tumors, and consistently, their promoters are hypomethylated. High expression of these genes is associated with poor patient survival. The fraction of AE-like cells increases with age in healthy pancreatic tissue, which is not explained by clonal mutations, thus pointing to a nongenetic source of variation. The fraction of AE-like cells is also significantly higher in human pancreatitis samples. Finally, we find edge-like states in lung, liver, prostate, and colon tissues, suggesting that subpopulations of healthy cells across tissues can exist in pre-neoplastic states.
These findings show “edge” epithelial cell states with oncogenic transcriptional activity in human organs without oncogenic mutations. In the pancreas, the fraction of acinar cells increases with age.