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Abstract

Hepatitis B virus X (HBx) protein is implicated in hepatitis B virus (HBV)-associated liver carcinogenesis. However, it remains unclear whether HBx-expressing hepatic progenitor cells (HPCs) are attributed to liver tumor formation. In this study, by using HBx transgenic mice and a 3,5-diethoxycarbonyl-1,4-dihydrocollidine (DDC)-induced liver injury model, the relationship between HBx expression and tumorigenicity of HPCs was analyzed. Compared with control mice, an elevated number of EpCAM+ cells with characteristics of HPCs was observed in HBx mice after 1 month and 4 months of DDC diet feeding. All HBx transgenic mice developed liver tumors characterized by histological features of both hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and cholangiocarcinoma after 7 months of DDC feeding. Notably, EpCAM+ HPCs isolated from premalignant HBx mice exposed to a DDC diet for 4 months formed subcutaneous mixed-lineage tumors (four out of six) in nonobese diabetic/severe-combined immunodeficient (NOD/SCID) mice, and none of the cells from wildtype (WT) induced tumor, indicating that HBx may induce malignant transformation of HPCs that contributes to tumorigenesis. We also found higher titers of circulating interleukin (IL)-6, activities of IL-6/STAT3, and Wnt/β-catenin signaling pathways in HBx transgenic mice, suggesting HBx may induce intrinsic changes in HPCs by way of the above signaling that enables HPCs with tumorigenicity potential. Finally, clinical evidence showed that high HBx expression in human HBV-related HCC was statistically associated with expansion of EpCAM+ or OV6+ tumor cells and aggressive clinicopathologic features. Conclusion: HBx induces intrinsic cellular transformation promoting the expansion and tumorigenicity of HPCs in DDC-treated mice, which may be a possible origin for liver cancer induced by chronic hepatitis infection. (HEPATOLOGY 2012)