The development of the intrahepatic bile ducts most likely requires interactions between epithelial and mesenchymal cells. In view of the epithelial–mesenchymal interactions between portal myofibroblasts (pMFs) and biliary epithelial cells in adult diseases of the bile ducts, we investigated the presence and function of pMFs during the development of intrahepatic bile ducts, as well as the development of intrahepatic branches of the hepatic artery.
We performed haematoxylin-eosin-stainings and immunohistochemistry for alpha-smooth-muscle actin, cytokeratin 19 and vimentin on serial sections of 45 fetal and postnatal liver biopsies.
The mesenchyme of portal tracts in the ductal plate stage devoid of a hepatic artery branch, contained numerous and diffusely scattered pMFs. Portal tracts with a hepatic artery branch were always larger than those without and showed a decreasing number of pMFs. In the remodeling stage, all portal tracts contained a hepatic artery branch, and pMFs were restricted to the periductal mesenchyme. These periductal pMFs disappeared after full incorporation of the bile duct.
Our findings strongly suggest interactions between pMFs and epithelial cells of the developing bile ducts. The development of the intrahepatic arterial branches always precedes the incorporation of the tubular segments of the ductal plate.