The liver is a special organ that performs a whole host of essential functions. The liver stores iron, vitamins and minerals; it detoxifies alcohol, drugs, and other chemicals that accumulate in our bloodstreams, and it produces bile (used to dissolve fats so that they can be degraded), and blood-based proteins like clotting factors and albumin. The liver also stores sugar in the form of glycogen. All of these tasks are undertaken by a single cell type, the hepatocyte (otherwise known as a liver cell).
When your liver fails, you get really sick. This was greatly illustrated to me by one of my colleagues where I teach whose wife suffered extensive liver damage as a result of her battle with lupus (short for systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease). Now that this dear lady has had a liver transplant, she is a new person. What a difference a healthy liver makes.
What can regenerative medicine do for patients with failing livers? Human pluripotent stem cells, either embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, can be directed to differentiate into liver cells in culture, but the liver cells made by these cells are very immature. They express proteins commonly found in fetal liver cells (for example, alpha-fetoprotein) and they also lack key enzymes associated with adult cells (such as cytochrome P450s). Rashid and others in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (2010; 120: 3127-3136) showed this. The development of three-dimensional culture systems have increased the maturity of such cells, but there is still a long way to go (see T Takebe and others, Nature 2013; 499:481-484 and J Shan and others, Nature Chemical Biology 2013; 9: 514-520).
Two papers from the journal Cell Stem Cell might show a way forward to making mature liver cells for regenerative liver treatments without destroying embryos or even using and pluripotent stem cell lines. These papers utilize the procedure known as “direct reprogramming,” otherwise known as “direct lineage conversion.” Direct reprogramming requires the forced overexpression of particular genes that causes the cells to switch their cell types.
In the first of these papers, Pengyu Huang and his colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, China overexpressed a three-gene combination in mouse embryonic fibroblasts that converted the cells into hepatocytes at an efficiency of 20% after 14 days in culture. This gene combination, known as 3TF (HNF4/HNF1A/FOXA3), converted the mouse embryonic skin cells into mature liver cells that made blood proteins and drug-processing enzymes. The only problem was that these mature cells could not grow in culture because they were mature. Therefore, Huang and others infected these cells with a virus called SV40, which drove the cells to divide. Now these cells could be grow in culture and expanded for further experiments.
When transplanted into the livers of mice with failing livers, the induced liver cells made by Huang and others restored proper liver function and allowed the mice to survive.
A second paper by Yuanyuan Du and others from the Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences at Peking University in Beijing, China, used a large gene combination to make mature liver cells from human skin fibroblasts. This gene combination included eight genes (HNF1A/HNF4A/HNF6/ATF5/PROX1/CEBPA/p53 ShRNA/C-MYC) that converted the human skin cells into liver cells after 30 days in culture at an efficiency of nearly 80%. Again, these cells metabolized drugs as they should, made blood proteins, took up cholesterol, and stored glycogen. Du and others compared the gene expression profile of these human induced hepatocytes or “hiHeps” to the gene expression profile of liver cells taken from liver biopsies. While there were differences in gene expression, there was also significant overlap and a large overall similarity. In fact the authors state, “these results indicate that hiHeps show a similar expression profile to primary human hepatocytes.”
Next, Du and others used three different mouse models of liver failure in all three cases, the hiHeps were capable of colonizing the damaged liver of the mouse and regenerating it. Mind you, the hiHeps did not do as good a job as human primary hepatocytes, but they still worked pretty well. This shows that this direct reprogramming protocol, as good as it is, can still be optimized and improved.
These studies show that the production of highly functional human hepatocyte-like cells using direct reprogramming is feasible and represents an exciting step towards the production of a supply source of cells for drug development, and therapies for liver disease.