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Pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs) are essentially involved in the development of pancreatic fibrosis, a constant feature of chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. Profibrogenic mediators, such as ethanol metabolites and cytokines, induce a PSC activation process that involves proliferation, enhanced production of extracellular matrix proteins and a phenotypic transition towards myofibroblasts which includes a loss of the characteristic retinoid-containing fat droplets. Here, we have analysed how exogenous all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) affects activation of rat PSCs induced by sustained culture. Bromodeoxyuridine-incorporation assays indicated an ATRA-dependent inhibition of DNA synthesis. In contrast, ATRA did not affect expression of α-smooth muscle actin, a protein typical for myofibroblasts. Quantification of [3H]proline incorporation revealed a diminished collagen production in ATRA-treated PSCs. Furthermore, zymography experiments showed that supernatants of ATRA-exposed PSC cultures contained higher levels of matrix metalloproteinase-9 but not of matrix metalloproteinase-2 than untreated controls. At the level of intracellular signalling, ATRA had no effect on extracellular signal-regulated kinase activation after incubation of PSCs with the mitogen platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF). In addition, PDGF-induced DNA binding of activator protein-1 (AP-1) transcription factors was not inhibited by ATRA treatment. Luciferase reporter gene assays, however, revealed an ATRA-dependent transrepression of AP-1 in PDGF-stimulated PSCs. Together, the results indicate that exogenous ATRA displays inhibitory effects on PSC proliferation and collagen synthesis but does not block phenotypic transition towards myofibroblasts. We hypothesise that inhibition of AP-1 signalling may be involved in the mediation of biological effects of ATRA on PSCs.