Interstitial cells of Cajal

Last revised by Joshua Yap on 10 Jan 2023

The interstitial cells of Cajal are mesenchymal cells closely apposed to neural and smooth muscle cells of the gut. They form a heterogeneous group with differing ultrastructure and functions.

One cell type has an ancillary neural function as a gastrointestinal pacemaker, generating electrical slow waves that drive rhythmic smooth muscle contraction; peristalsis for propulsion and segmentation for mixing. Failure of this network causes gastroparesis and intestinal pseudo-obstruction

History and etymology

These cells are named after S Ramon y Cajal, an eminent Spanish neuroanatomist in the 19th century who described the fibroblast-type interstitial cells of Cajal.

Related pathology

  • gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST): a heterogeneous family of submucosal tumors derived from interstitial cells of Cajal or common progenitor cells

    • the oncogenic mutations (80% c-KIT and 20% PDGFRA genes) produce abnormal receptor tyrosine kinase proteins that are always activated, leading to uncontrolled cell proliferation

    • extra-gastrointestinal GISTs arise from interstitial cells of Cajal in other organs

  • gastroparesis

  • colonic pseudo-obstruction

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