Defining the mechanisms in lineage specification of progenitor cells in the regenerating adult liver
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During hepatic disease the liver has the unrivalled ability to regenerate, by activating mature hepatocytes which can divide and thereby reconstitute the functional liver mass. However in the context of chronic hepatocellular disease the liver can regenerate from an endogenous population of hepatic progenitor cells (HPCs). The mechanisms which are involved in the activation and differentiation of these HPCs is not fully understood. To investigate whether there is a differential signalling requirement in HPCs acquiring a biliary versus hepatocellular fate we established in the laboratory two models of chronic liver damage and regeneration, one of which causes hepatocellular death, and results in infiltrating HPCs regenerating hepatocytes, and a second which causes biliary blockage and death, resulting in biliary regeneration. Here we describe how during biliary regeneration the Notch signalling pathway is highly expressed and activated. HPCs cells are consistently associated with a myofibroblast niche which expressed the ligand Jagged-1 at high levels. We have modulated the Notch signalling pathway in both a co-culture system and our models in vivo to demonstrate that Notch signalling is important in the specification of biliary cells, and that inhibition of this pathway both in vitro and in vivo results in the abrogation of biliary commitment. During hepatocellular regeneration we have found that the negative repressor of Notch signalling Numb is highly expressed in tandem with a low expression of the Notch pathway. We suggest that Wnt signalling maintains Numb within these HPCs at a high level and that this, along with stimulation of a hepatocellular programme allows HPCs to exit from a biliary fate and assume a hepatocellular phenotype. Finally we have found that macrophage ingestion of debris promotes the expression of Wnt, and that ablation of these cells results in a phenotypic switch between HPCs assuming a hepatocellular fate and a biliary one.