It is hypothesized that the liver has 3 levels of cells in the hepatic lineage that respond to injury or carcinogenesis: 1) the mature hepatocyte, which responds to partial hepatectomy (PH), to centrolobular injury, such as that induced by carbon tetrachloride (CCl4), and to dimethylnitrosamine (DEN) hepatocarcinogenesis; 2) the ductular “bipolar” progenitor cell, which responds to centrolobular injury when the proliferation of hepatocytes is inhibited, and to N-2-acetylaminofluorene (AAF) hepatocarcinogenesis; and 3) the putative periductular stem cell, which responds to periportal injury, such as induced by allyl alcohol and to choline-deficiency models of hepatocarcinogenesis. Hepatocytes are numerous, respond rapidly by 1 or 2 cell cycles, but can only produce other hepatocytes. The ductular progenitor cells are less numerous, may proliferate for longer times than hepatocytes, and are generally considered “bipolar,” i.e., can give rise to biliary cells or hepatocytes. Periductular stem cells are rare in the liver, have a very long proliferation potential, and may be multipotent, but their full potential has yet to be defined. Extrahepatic (bone marrow) origin of the periductular stem cells is supported by recent data showing that hepatocytes may express genetic markers of donor hematopoietic cells after bone marrow transplantation. Thus, experimental models of liver injury and of hepatocarcinogenesis may call forth a cellular response at different levels in the hepatic lineage (heterogeneity), and these cells have different potential to form cells of other types (plasticity).
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