In chronic pancreatitis (CP), both the progressive loss of acinar parenchyma and aggressive fibro-inflammatory reactions ultimately lead to irreversible organ destruction. Dying cells are normally removed by macrophages and elimination is associated with anti-inflammatory cytokine switch. We investigated whether defective clearance of damaged acini by macrophages such as compromised phagocytosis or altered cytokine reaction occurs in CP and thus represents a causative link between acinar loss and fibro-inflammation. In a checkerboard-like co-culture system, we assessed normal and CP macrophages for their phagocytic and cytokine responses to dying pancreatic acinar cells of normal or CP origin by FACS, confocal microscopy, QRT-PCR, and ELISA. In CP, phagocytosis of apoptotic acini by macrophages was not impaired; however, the associated cytokine responses were gradually perturbed. Most interestingly, only normal acini suppressed TGF beta 1 expression and accumulation specifically in normal macrophage cultures, while CP acini lost this ability. Both types of apoptotic acini induced pro-inflammatory cytokine bursts of varying strength in both types of macrophages; however, the most significant difference (more than 50-fold higher expression of IL-1 beta, IL-6, and IL-8) was evident between CP/CP and normal/normal combinations, indicating that acinar and macrophage alterations synergistically lead to the ultimate CP-specific bias. In combination with in situ data comparing circulating inflammatory cells to pancreatic resident ones, our results indicate that cytokine expression in inflammatory cells undergoes spatiotemporal modulation, most likely through a successive interplay of acinar, stromal, and circulating factors. Thus, clearance of injured pancreatic acini by macrophages is associated with a unique cytokine reaction which may constitute a basis for progression of SAPE (sentinel acute pancreatitis event) to the irreversible fibro-inflammation in CP. Copyright (C) 2008 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.