In previous studies, intrahepatic human biliary epithelial cells (BEC) were isolated in high purity. However, these cells demonstrated only limited growth responses. Here we report that human BEC proliferate in response to human hepatocyte growth factor (hHGF), retain BEC-specific phenotype, and can be serially passaged. BEC showed dose-dependent growth in response to 0.01-100 ng/ml hHGF. The maximum S-phase labeling index reached 40% with half-maximal stimulation at 1 ng/ml. The response of cells from normal and primary biliary cirrhotic liver to hHGF was similar. Cultures were immunostained with specific antibodies and then processed for [3H]thymidine autoradiography. Proliferating cells expressed BEC-specific markers (HEA125 and CK-19), but were negative for desmin and factor VIII-related antigen. Occasional vimentin-positive cells were observed, but these were nonproliferative. In conclusion, cells responding to hHGF were clearly BEC in origin. The observation that HGF is mitogenic for BEC as well as hepatocytes has important implications. First, greater yields of intrahepatic BEC are available for subsequent studies of the pathogenesis and etiology of diseases of the biliary epithelium. Secondly, some means of regulating the cellular response to HGF in vivo must operate, in that HGF levels rise early after partial hepatectomy and yet BEC proliferate 24 h later than hepatocytes.


R Joplin, T Hishida, H Tsubouchi, Y Daikuhara, R Ayres, J M Neuberger, A J Strain


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