Stanford University life science researchers have managed to successfully identify a stem cell population that has eluded many laboratories for some time. Essentially, the Stanford team has discovered a previously unknown population of liver cells in mice that function as liver stem cells. Such a find could aid drug testing and increase our present understanding of liver biology and disease.
Researchers in the laboratory of Roel Nusse at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a cell type in the liver of laboratory mice that can both self-renew and make new liver cells. This discovery by Nusse and others settles a long-standing conundrum of how the liver maintains itself when liver cells grow old and die.
“There’s always been a question as to how the liver replaces dying hepatocytes,” said professor of developmental biology Roel Nusse, PhD. “Most other tissues have a dedicated population of cells that can divide to make a copy of themselves, which we call self-renewal, and can also give rise to the more-specialized cells that make up that tissue. But there never was any evidence for a stem cell in the liver.”
It was assumed for some time that mature hepatocytes (liver cells) would themselves divide to replace a dying neighbor. However, hepatocytes have an abnormal amount of DNA, which would make cell division extremely difficult.
Nusse and his team published this research in the Aug. 5 edition of the journal Nature. The first author of this paper, Bruce Wang, MD, an assistant professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of California-San Francisco, led the research while serving as a visiting scholar in Nusse’s lab.
The liver is a large, multi-lobed organ that filters toxins from the blood, synthesizes blood proteins, and makes digestive enzymes and bile. It is involved in many important metabolic processes. The liver contains a central vein that carries blood through it. The stem cells identified by Wang and Nusse are found adjacent to this vein.
Classically, hepatocytes were largely thought to be all alike. Most mature hepatocytes are “polyploid,” which means that they have more than the normal two copies of each chromosome. With all this extra DNA, it makes it difficult or even impossible, for these cells to divide normally, but this extra DNA might confer other benefits.
“If it’s not necessary for a cell to maintain the capacity to divide, it can do whatever it wants with its genome,” said Nusse. “Red blood cells, for instance, have no DNA. Muscle cells have many copies of each chromosome.” Having extra copies of chromosomes might allow these cells to make large amounts of particular proteins quickly, for example.
However, the cell population identified by Wang and Nusse in the livers of laboratory mice is diploid, and have only two copies of each chromosome. These cells can divide to make carbon copies of themselves, or to make cells that begin their lives as diploid but then acquire additional copies of their chromosomes as they move away from the central vein into the main body of the liver.
“People in the field have always thought of hepatocytes as a single cell type,” said Wang. “And yet the cell we identified is clearly different from others in the liver. Maybe we should accept that there may be several subtypes of hepatocytes, potentially with different functions.”
To identify liver-specific stem cells, Wang and Nusse identified cells that express the protein Axin2. They found these axin2-expressing cells surrounding the central vein. Axin2 is produced by cells in response to the presence of members of the Wnt signaling protein family, and decades of research by Nusse and other laboratories have shown that the Wnt proteins play a critical role in embryonic development, and in the growth and maintenance of stem cells throughout the body.
Interestingly, Wang and Nusse, and others showed that the endothelial cells that line the interior surface of the central vein in the liver produce Wnt2 and Wnt9b. These secreted Wnt proteins confer stem cell properties on the neighboring hepatocytes that surround the central vein.
Finally, Nusse’s team discovered that a portion of the descendants of the Axin2-expressing cells move outward from the central vein over time, become polyploid and begin to express other, hepatocyte-specific genes. About one year after being born, these descendant cells had effectively replaced about 30 percent of the entire mouse liver, and made up about 40 percent of all hepatocytes in the liver.
These newly identified liver stem cells also express genes associated with very early embryonic development, which may give a clue as to when and where they arise.
“Perhaps these stem cells in the adult liver actually arise very early in development,” said Nusse, “when the embryo sets aside a certain population of cells to maintain the organ during adult life.”
Although the current research was conducted in mice, it is possible that there are more than just one kind of hepatocyte in humans as well, and this realization could transform the study of liver biology. For example, hepatocytes have proven notoriously difficult to grow in laboratory culture for study or for use in drug testing.
“The most common reason that promising new drugs for any type of condition fail is that they are found to be toxic to liver,” said Wang. “Researchers have been trying for decades to find a way to maintain hepatocytes in the laboratory on which to test the effects of potential medications before trying them in humans. Perhaps we haven’t been culturing the right subtype. These stem cells might be more likely to fare well in culture.”
There’s also an opportunity to better understand human disease.
“Does liver cancer arise from a specific subtype of cells?” said Wang. “This model also gives us a way to understand how chromosome number is controlled. Does the presence of the Wnt proteins keep the stem cells in a diploid state? These are fundamental biological questions we can now begin to address.”