Withdrawal of promising drug candidates is often due to the detection of liver toxicity. In particular the parenchymal liver cells or hepatocytes are targeted since they are the major sites of drug transport and of metabolite formation and thus also the place where not only detoxification, but also activation of new chemical (NCE) and biological (NBE) entities may occur. Therefore, primary hepatocyte- based cultures are currently the preferred in vitro model to screen for liver toxicity. However, within a few days, they undergo dedifferentiation with loss of liver-specific functionality, including xenobiotic biotransformation capacity, making them only suitable for short-term applications. A plausible alternative to primary hepatocyte cultures that can be maintained for longer periods of time could be the use of liver-derived epithelial cell lines and their optimized derivatives. Therefore, in the present study, we evaluated the stability and the hepatic differentiation potential of a neonatal liver-derived rat epithelial cell line from biliary origin (rLEC). Undifferentiated rLEC stably express the hepatic progenitor markers CEBPA, FOXA2, GJA1, ONECUT1, KRT18 and KRT19 for at least 15 consecutive passages after cryopreservation. Upon sequential exposure to hepatogenic growth factors and cytokines, rLEC generate functional hepatic progeny, expressing mature hepatic markers including Alb, Ahr, Car, C/ebpα, Cx32, Foxa2, Hnf1α, Hnf1β and Onecut1. Furthermore, an active polarization is observed for the hepatic drug transporters Oatp4 and Ntcp. rLEC-derived hepatic cells also acquire the ability to store glycogen, express genes encoding for key hepatic enzymes as shown by Affymetrix microarray data, and display stable CYP1A1/2- and CYP2B1/2-dependent activities for several weeks at levels comparable to those observed in cultured primary rat hepatocytes. The acquisition of such a stable and active biotransformation capacity is key for the applicability of liver-based in vitro models for long-term toxicity testing.
Keywords: Hepatocyte, differentiation, liver embryogenesis, liver epithelial cell, liver progenitor, biliary, Hepatic, hepatogenic growth factors, cytokines, toxicity.