Patients with severe liver disease must receive a liver transplant. This major procedure requires that the patient survives major surgery and then takes anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. In general, liver transplant patients tend to fair pretty well. The one-year survival rate of liver transplant patients approaches 90% (see O’Mahony and Goss, Texas Heart Institute Journal 2012 39(6): 874-875).
A potentially better way to treat liver failure patients would be to take their own liver cells, convert them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), differentiate them into liver cells, and use these liver cells to regenerate the patient’s liver. Such a treatment would contain a patient’s own liver cells and would not require anti-rejection drugs.
Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs are made from genetically-engineered adult cells that have had four specific genes (Oct4, Klf4, Sox2, and c-Myc) introduced into them. As a result of the heightened expression of these genes, some of the adult cells dedifferentiate and are reprogrammed into cells that resemble embryonic stem cells. Normally, this procedure is relatively inefficient, slow, and induces new mutations into the engineered cells. Also, when iPSCs are differentiated into liver cells (hepatocytes), they do not adequately proliferate after differentiation, and they also fail to properly function the way adult hepatocytes do.
New work from laboratories at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has differentiated human hepatocytes by means of a modified technique that bypasses the pluripotency stage. These cells were then used to repopulate mouse livers.
“I really like this paper. It’s a step forward in the field,” said Alejandro Soto-Gutiérrez, assistant professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the work. “The concept is reprogramming, but with a shortcut, which is really cool.”
Research teams led by Holger Willenbring and Sheng Ding isolated human skin cells called fibroblasts and infected them with engineered viruses that forced the expression of three genes: OCT4, SOX2, and KLF4. These transduced cells were grown in culture in the presence of proteins called growth factors and small molecules in order to induce reprogramming of the cells into the primary embryonic germ layer known as endoderm. In the embryo, the endoderm is the inner-most layer of cells that forms the gastrointestinal tract and its associated structures (liver, pancreas, and so on). Therefore, the differentiation of adult cells into endodermal progenitor cells provides a handy way to form a cell type that readily divides and can differentiate into liver cells.
“We divert the cells on their path to pluripotency,” explained coauthor Holger Willenbring, associate professor of surgery at UCSF. “We still take advantage of what is intrinsic to reprogramming, that the cells are becoming very plastic; they’ve become flexible in what kind of cell type they can be directed towards.”
The authors called these cells induced multipotent progenitor cells (iMPCs). The iMPCs were easily differentiated into endodermal progenitor cells (iMPC-EPCs). These iMPC-EPCs were grown in culture with a cocktail of small molecules and growth factors to increase iMPC-EPC colony size while concomitantly maintain them in an endodermal state. Afterwards, Willenbring and others cultured these cells with factors and small molecules known to promote liver cell differentiation. When these iMPC-Hepatocytes (Heps) were transplanted into mice with damaged livers, the iMPC-Hep cells continued to divide at least nine months after transplantation. Furthermore, the transplanted cells matured and displayed gene expression profiles very similar to that of typical adult hepatocytes. Transplantation of iMPC-Heps also improved the survival of a mouse model of chronic liver failure about as well as did transplantation of adult hepatocytes.
“It is a breakthrough for us because it’s the first time that we’ve seen a cell that can actually repopulate a mouse’s liver,” said Willenbring. Willenbring strongly suspects that iMPCs are better able to repopulate the liver because the derivation of iMPC—rather than an iPSC—eliminates some steps along the path to generating hepatocytes. These iMPCs also possess the ability to proliferate in culture to generate sufficient quantities of cells for therapeutic purposes and, additionally, can functionally mature while retaining that proliferative ability to proliferate. Both of these features are important prerequisites for therapeutic applications, according to Willenbring.
Before this technique can enter clinical trials, more work must be done. For example: “The key to all of this is trying to generate cells that are identical to adult liver cells,” said Stephen Duncan, a professor of cell biology at Medical College of Wisconsin, who was not involved in the study. “You really need these cells to take on all of the functions of a normal liver cell.” Duncan explained that liver cells taken directly from a human adult might be able to repopulate the liver in this same mouse model at levels close to 90 percent.
Willenbring and his colleagues observed repopulation levels of 2 percent by iMPC-Heps, which is substantially better than the 0.05 percent repopulation typically accomplished by hepatocytes derived from iPSCs or embryonic stem cells. However: “As good as this is, the field will need greater levels of expansion,” said Ken Zaret of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who did not participate in the work. “But the question is: What is limiting the proliferative capacity of the cells?”
Zaret explained that it is not yet clear whether some aspect of how the cells were programmed that differed from how they normally develop could have an impact on how well the population expands after transplantation. “There still is a ways to go [sic],” he said, “but [the authors] were able to show much better long-term repopulation with human cells in the mouse model than other groups have.”
See S. Zhu et al., “Mouse liver repopulation with hepatocytes generated from human fibroblasts,” Nature, doi:10.1038/nature13020, 2014.