An elusive quarry has finally been chased to ground. Or, more accurately, to the central vein of one of our most important organs: the liver. Developmental biologist Roel Nusse, PhD, and visiting scholar and gastroenterologist Bruce Wang, MD, announced the identification of the liver stem cell in mice today in Nature. The finding will help researchers better understand liver biology and disease. It may also aid in the decades-long quest to find a reliable and efficient way to grow liver cells, called hepatocytes, in the laboratory for study and to test the effect of drugs.
Until now, researchers had assumed that all hepatocytes were created equal. And none of them seemed to have stem-cell-like traits. As Nusse described in our release:
There’s always been a question as to how the liver replaces dying hepatocytes. 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.
Wang and Nusse took a different approach. They looked in the liver to see which cells, if any, were expressing a gene called Axin2. Axin2 is expressed when a cell encounters a member of the Wnt protein family. Years of previous work in the Nusse lab have shown that Wnt family members are critical regulators of embryonic development and stem cell maintenance.
They found a small population of Axin2-expressing hepatocytes with just two copies of each chromosome surrounding the central vein of the liver. These cells can both self-renew and divide to create new hepatocytes that migrate outward from the vein. As they migrate, these cells become polyploid and begin to express hepatocyte-specific genes. Eventually much of the animals' livers were made up of these stem-cell descendents. As Wang described:
People in the field have always thought of hepatocytes as a single cell type. 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.
If this result in mice is also found to be true in humans, it's possible that the liver stem cells may be easier to grow in the laboratory that normal hepatocytes. This would enable researchers to test the effect of drugs under development on human liver cells before they are tested in people (my colleague Bruce Goldman wrote about another potential solution to this problem last year). As Wang explained:
The most common reason that promising new drugs for any type of condition fail is that they are found to be toxic to liver. 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.
The finding opens the doors to answering other important questions as well, said Wang: "Does liver cancer arise from a specific subtype of cells? 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."
Previously: Which way is up? Stem cells take cues from localized signals, say Stanford scientists and The best toxicology lab: a mouse with a human liver
Photo of liver stem cells (red) and their progeny (green) by Bruce Wang