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Identification of bipotential progenitor cells in human liver development

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Abstract

Intermediate filament proteins have been reported to be expressed in a cell lineage-specific manner during morphogenesis. We studied the expression of cytokeratin (CK)14, CK19, and vimentin and of the hepatocyte-specific HepPar1 antigen during the development of human liver. Nineteen fetal livers (gestational ages 4 to 40 weeks), 3 normal infant livers, and 3 normal adult livers were studied by immunoperoxidase staining of paraffin sections with monoclonal anti-CK19, anti-vimentin, and HepPar1 antibodies and polyclonal anti-CK14 antibodies. Double-immunostaining for CK14 and CK19 as well as bile duct cytokeratin and HepPar1 antigen was also done. CK19 and HepPar1 antigen were the first markers detected in immature progenitor cells of the liver primordium at 4 weeks' gestation. During subsequent liver development, the progenitor cells expressed HepPar1 antigen, CK14, and CK19, from 8 to 14 weeks' gestation. As hepatocyte differentiation progressed, expression of HepPar1 antigen increased, and CK14 and CK19 were abrogated from hepatoblasts at 14 to 16 weeks' gestation. In contrast, as progenitor cells transformed into ductal plate cells, CK19 expression increased and persisted in differentiated bile ducts, whereas CK14 and HepPar1 antigen were lost. Vimentin was detected in ductal plate and biliary epithelial cells from 9 to 36 weeks' gestation, but not in hepatoblasts or hepatocytes. Double-immunostaining confirmed coexpression of CK14 and CK19 in the progenitor cells for a short time (8 to 14 weeks' gestation) during early development. Double immunostaining for bile duct CK and HepPar1 antigen clearly demonstrated the divergence of the hepatocyte and bile duct epithelial cell lineages. Our findings suggest that hepatic progenitor cells differentiate in steps marked by the acquisition or loss of specific phenotypic characteristics. Commitment of the HepPar1+CK19+ progenitor cells to either hepatocyte or bile duct epithelial cell lineages results in increased expression of one marker and loss of the other marker. These characteristics clearly identify bipotential hepatic progenitor cells in the developing human liver.

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