Hepatic progenitor cells, stem cells, and AFP expression in models of liver injury


Wolf D. Kuhlmann
Division of Radiooncology
Klinische Kooperationseinheit
Strahlentherapeutische Onkologie
Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum
Im Neuenheimer Feld 280
69120 Heidelberg
Tel.: +49 6221 42-2558;
Fax: +49 6221 42-2572;
E-mail: w.kuhlmann@dkfz.de


Adult hepatocytes and liver-cell progenitors play a role in restoring liver tissue after injury. For the study of progenitor cells in liver repair, experimental models included (a) surgical removal of liver tissue by partial hepatectomy; (b) acute injury by carbontetrachloride; (c) acute injury by d-galactosamine (GalN) and N-nitrosomorpholine (NNM); and (d) chemical hepatocarcinogenesis by feeding NNM in low and high doses. Serological and immunohistological detection of alpha-fetoprotein gene expression served to follow pathways of cellular differentiation. Stem cells were not required in models of surgical removal of parenchyma and in carbon tetrachloride intoxication of adult hepatocytes. In contrast, regeneration of liver occurred through biliary epithelial cells in injuries induced by GalN and NNM. These biliary epithelial cells, collectively called oval cells, are most probably derived from the canals of Hering. Proliferating bile duct cells reached a level of differentiation with reactivation of foetal genes and significant alpha-1-fetoprotein (AFP) synthesis signalling a certain degree of retrodifferentiation with potential stemness. Due to the same embryonic origin of bile ducts and hepatocytes, biliary epithelium and its proliferating progeny (oval cells) have a defined role in liver regeneration as a transit and amplification compartment. In their early proliferation stage, oval cells were heavily engaged in DNA synthesis ([3H]thymidine labelling). Pulse-chase experiments during experimental hepatocarcinogenesis exhibited their development into hepatocytes with high risk for transformation and leading to foci of altered hepatocytes. Hepatocellular carcinomas may arise either from proliferating/differentiating oval cells or from adult hepatocytes; both cell types have stem-like properties. AFP-positive and AFP-negative carcinomas occurred in the same liver. They may represent random clonal origin. The heterogeneity of phenotypic marker (AFP) correlated with a process of retrodifferentiation.