• somatic stem cells;
  • differentiation;
  • hepatoblast;
  • cDNA microarray;
  • liver;
  • endoderm

Abstract HBC-3 hepatic stem cells maintained in the undifferentiated state can be induced to differentiate along the hepatocyte lineage in response to DMSO (Rogler, 1997). In order to understand the complex transcriptional regulatory mechanisms associated with the differentiation of these somatic stem cells and to identify novel candidate stem cell and differentiation associated genes, we have begun to characterize the transcriptome of HBC-3 cells during a 7-day differentiation protocol. This analysis showed that differentiating HBC-3 cells undergo biphasic bursts of gene regulation peaking at 3 hours and 120 hours of DMSO treatment. In the undifferentiated state, HBC-3 cells express muscle, neuron, myeloid, and lymphoid specific genes that are rapidly downregulated during hepatocytic differentiation. Cluster analysis has revealed large groups of genes with different temporal regulation profiles demonstrating complex and widespread transcriptional changes.

Specifically, we discovered a multifaceted downregulation of the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway accompanied by the repression of TCF target genes during HBC-3 differentiation. In addition, there is downregulation of cellular receptors for fibronectin and laminin and other extracellular matrix molecules indicative of widespread cell surface alterations. DMSO induces cell cycle arrest, and this is reflected in upregulation of growth inhibitory proteins such as cyclin I and p18 and downregulation of cyclins B1 and D. Genes needed for hepatocytic functions, such as apolipoprotein C-IV, phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase, alcohol dehydrogenase, and asialoglycoprotein receptor were upregulated. Finally, transcriptional regulators including Twist, Snail, HNF1a, and GATA6 were upregulated during differentiation of HBC-3 cells. The significance of these findings is that our genome-based approach has allowed the parallel identification of multiple regulatory pathways that is needed to begin to fully understand the complex differentiation process.