Scientists interested in the smooth muscles of the urinary tract, and their control, have recently been studying cells in the interstitium of tissues that express the c-kit antigen (Kit(+) cells). These cells have morphologic features that are reminiscent of the well-described pacemaker cells in the gut, the interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC). The spontaneous contractile behavior of muscles in the urinary tract varies widely, and it is clear that urinary tract Kit(+) interstitial cells cannot be playing an identical role to that played by the ICC in the gut. Nevertheless, there is increasing evidence that they do play a role in modulating the contractile behavior of adjacent smooth muscle, and might also be involved in mediating neural control. This review outlines the properties of ICC in the gut, and gives an account of the discovery of cells in the interstitium of the main components of the urinary tract. The physiologic properties of such cells and the functional implications of their presence are discussed, with particular reference to the bladder. In this organ, Kit(+) cells are found under the lamina propria, where they might interact with the urothelium and with sensory nerves, and also between and within the smooth-muscle bundles. Confocal microscopy and calcium imaging are being used to assess the physiology of ICC and their interactions with smooth muscles. Differences in the numbers of ICC are seen in smooth muscle specimens obtained from patients with various pathologies; in particular, bladder overactivity is associated with increased numbers of these cells.
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