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World J Hepatol. 2009 October 31; 1(1): 98–102.
Published online 2009 October 31. doi:  10.4254/wjh.v1.i1.98
PMCID: PMC2999260

Partial blockage of hepatocyte maturation in hepatoma-derived growth factor transgenic mice

Abstract

AIM: To investigate the role of hepatoma-derived growth factor (HDGF) in liver development, especially in the hepatocyte differentiation.

METHODS: We generated transgenic mice which overexpressed HDGF in hepatocytes under the transcriptional control of mouse albumin promoter/enhancer. To examine the effects of HDGF overexpression on hepatocyte differentiation, we investigated the expression patterns of the differentiation marker genes.

RESULTS: The HDGF transgenic mice developed normally and showed no apparent abnormality in the liver. However, the gene expression patterns of the liver in adult transgenic mice were similar to those of the neonatal liver in control mice.

CONCLUSION: These findings suggest that HDGF-overexpression partially suppresses hepatocyte maturation.

Keywords: Hepatoma-derived growth factor, Hepatocyte, Maturation, Transgenic mice

INTRODUCTION

The liver is the major hematopoietic organ during the fetal period, and immature hepatocytes function as stromal cells which support hematopoiesis. During liver development, immature hepatocytes differentiate and acquire many functions in preparation for the metabolic conditions after birth[1,2]. The expression patterns of differentiation marker genes can represent the maturational stage of hepatocytes. Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is one of the early marker genes of the immature hepatocytes and its expression remarkably decreases after birth[3]. The expression of albumin, the most abundant protein synthesized by hepatocytes, begins during the mid-gestational stage, and this expression increases with the progression of liver development, especially after birth[4]. In the late-gestational stage hepatocytes begin to produce metabolic enzymes including tyrosine amino transferase (TAT) and glucose-6-phosphatase (G-6-Pase)[5,6]. Subsequently, hepatocytes gain a fully matured phenotype, characterized by the expression of tryptophan oxygenase (TO) within two weeks after birth[7]. The expression levels of TAT and G-6-Pase peak in the neonatal liver and decrease in the adult liver. In contrast, TO is barely expressed in the fetal and neonatal liver and is highly expressed in the adult liver. Although the gene expression patterns of hepatocytes continue to alter after birth, few studies have documented the growth and differentiation of post-natal hepatocytes.

Hepatoma- derived growth factor (HDGF) is a heparin-binding protein, which has been identified from the conditioned media of HuH-7 hepatoma cells[8,9]. HDGF stimulates the proliferation of fibroblasts, endothelial cells, vascular smooth muscle cells and hepatocytes[8-11]. Its primary sequence contains nuclear localization signals and the HDGF can be transported to the nucleus, thus indicating that HDGF is a unique nuclear/growth factor[12,13]. Recently, several novel genes have been identified for proteins which share a highly homologous amino terminal region consisting of about 100 amino acids; so-called HDGF- related proteins (HRPs)[14,15]. It is thought that HDGF and HRPs form a new gene family. Although HDGF was initially identified in human hepatoma-derived cells, HDGF mRNA is expressed in various normal adult tissues of mice and humans, thus suggesting that HDGF has some physiological functions in non-tumor cells[9].

Previous studies have suggested that HDGF participates in fetal organ development and adult tissue repair as an autocrine growth factor[10,11,16]. We have shown that HDGF is highly expressed in immature fetal hepatocytes and promotes their proliferation[16]. Furthermore, HDGF is induced in two animal models of liver regeneration[17], suggesting that HDGF plays an important role in the proliferation of both fetal and adult hepatocytes. Although the involvement of HDGF in cell differentiation has not been clarified, the suppressive effects of HDGF on gut cell maturation have been suggested[18]. We generated transgenic mice which overexpressed HDGF in hepatocytes under the control of the albumin promoter/enhancer, in order to examine the functional role of HDGF in liver development. The gene expression patterns of hepatocytes in adult transgenic mice resemble those of neonatal hepatocytes of wild-type mice, thus suggesting that HDGF-overexpression partially suppresses hepatocyte maturation.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

Mice

The DNA fragment covering the entire coding region of mouse HDGF was cloned into the Eco RI site of an expression vector which contains the promoter and enhancer of the mouse albumin gene[19]. A schematic representation of the constructed transgene (Alb-HDGF) is illustrated in Figure Figure1.1. Transgenic founders were generated by pronuclear injection according to standard techniques. Using a 32P-labeled fragment of HDGF-specific cDNA as a probe, transgene integration and expression were identified by Southern and Northern blot analyses, respectively. C57BL/6CrSlc mice (Nihon SLC, Shizuoka, Japan) or non-transgenic mice were used as controls. All animal experiments were performed according to the guidelines of Osaka University Medical School.

Figure 1
Schematic representation of the constructed transgene of HDGF. Schematic representation of the constructed fragments used in the generation of transgenic mice. A DNA fragment covering the entire cDNA of the mouse HDGF was inserted into the expression ...

Hybridization probes

The probes used for the Northern blot analysis were as follows: a 0.4 kb fragment of mouse HDGF cDNA[9], a 0.5 kb fragment of mouse G-6-Pase cDNA[20], and TO cDNA[20].

Southern blot and Northern blot analyses

Genomic DNA was isolated from individual mouse tails, and then was blotted onto nylon membranes according to standard protocols. Total RNA was extracted from liver tissues using ISOGEN (Nippon Gene, Tokyo, Japan), denatured with formamide and blotted onto nylon membranes. The mouse cDNAs described above were labeled with (α-32P) dCTP using a Megaprime DNA labeling kit (Amersham Life Science, Tokyo, Japan) and then were used for hybridization[16,17].

RESULTS

An expression unit was constructed that contained the entire HDGF cDNA under the control of the mouse albumin promoter/enhancer (Alb-HDGF, Figure Figure1).1). Purified fragments were used for pronuclear injection and potential founders were analyzed for the genomic integration(s) of the transgene. Three founders containing the Alb-HDGF sequence were identified by Southern blot, and the transgenes were successfully transmitted in two lines (Figure (Figure2A:2A: Tg-48, and Tg-21). Northern blot analysis revealed that HDGF was highly expressed in the adult liver of Tg-48 mice, whereas HDGF expression in the liver of Tg-21 mice was almost equal to the wild-type mice (Figure (Figure2B).2B). We therefore used the Tg-48 mice to analyze the effects of HDGF overexpression in hepatocytes.

Figure 2
Genomic integration and mRNA expression of the HDGF-transgene. A: Southern blot analysis with HDGF cDNA probe. Genomic DNA was isolated from individual mouse tails and Southern blot analysis was performed according to standard methods. The bands representing ...

HDGF overexpressing mice (Tg-48) developed normally and did not show any abnormality in appearance. In addition, no obvious histological abnormality associated with the expression of HDGF was detected in these mice up to 12 mo of age (data not shown). The expression patterns of genes related to hepatocyte differentiation were investigated by Northern blotting to examine the effects of HDGF overexpression on liver development in detail. In normal mice, consistent with the previous studies, G-6-Pase expression was high in the neonatal liver and relatively low in adult (8 wk old) liver, whereas TO expression was higher in the adult liver in comparison to the neonatal liver (Figure (Figure3A).3A). Conversely, the expression of G-6-Pase was high, while the TO expression was low in the adult livers of transgenic mice (Figure (Figure3B3B and andD).D). These gene expression patterns observed in the livers of adult transgenic mice, were similar to the patterns observed in the neonatal stage of control livers. These findings have indicated that HDGF overexpressing hepatocytes in adult (8 wk old) transgenic mice appear to have the characteristics of hepatocytes in neonatal wild-type mice, suggesting the possible maturational retardation of hepatocytes in the transgenic mice. However, G-6-Pase expression in the transgenic liver in 24 wk-old mice decreased to the level of the normal liver, and the expression level of TO in the transgenic liver was increased almost to the level of the control liver, although small differences were still observed (Figure (Figure3C3C and andD).D). Therefore, HDGF overexpression did not completely block hepatocyte maturation and HDGF overexpressing hepatocytes could acquire almost fully differentiated phenotypes. These findings suggest that HDGF-overexpression partially suppresses the hepatocyte differentiation observed in the post-natal stage and thus causes the maturational delay of the hepatocytes.

Figure 3
The expression of differentiation marker genes of hepatocytes. A: The expression of differentiation marker genes of hepatocytes in normal mice. RNA was extracted from fetal mice of E (embryonic day) 13.5 and 15.5, and postnatal mice of zero weeks (new ...

DISCUSSION

A number of studies have suggested that HDGF is involved in the development of various organs[10,11,16,18,21]. We have demonstrated that HDGF is a unique growth factor, which is highly expressed in fetal liver and promotes fetal hepatocyte proliferation[16]. However, familial genes often compensate for the functions of other family members, and HDGF-null mice have been reported to show no obvious phenotype, perhaps as a result of the redundant functions of HDGF related genes[22]. We therefore generated the HDGF transgenic mice and examined the functional role of HDGF in vivo according to the gain-of-function method.

Although several other groups have also reported the involvement of HDGF in the development of various organs through its growth stimulating activity, little is known about the role of HDGF in cellular maturation. As for hepatocyte differentiation, Kamiya et al[20] established a primary culture system of murine fetal hepatocytes to investigate the mechanism that controls late fetal liver development. In the culture system, the administration of Oncostain M and dexamethasone can induce hepatocyte differentiation and recapitulate the maturational process of hepatocytes ranging from mid-gestation to new-born stage. This culture system was used to clarify the involvement of HDGF in hepatocyte differentiation although down-regulation of HDGF could not induce the cellular differentiation process of the late gestation stage[16].

In the present study, the overexpression of HDGF under the control of the albumin promoter did not cause any apparent morphological abnormalities in the liver. However, the gene expression patterns showed the possibility that the maturational process of hepatocytes during the post-natal stage was disturbed. This result is consistent with the report by Lepourcelet et al[18], which documented that overexpression of HDGF in the mouse fetal gut explants retards epithelial differentiation, suggesting a suppressive role of HDGF in epithelial differentiation.

Several proteins strongly expressed in both tumors and fetal organs, such as carcinoembryonic antigen and AFP, are known as oncofetal proteins[23,24]. HDGF is expressed exclusively in both fetal and cancer tissues, indicating that HDGF can also be regarded as an oncofetal protein. Although several oncofetal proteins are clinically used as tumor markers, there are few proteins whose functional roles in cancer cells have so far been demonstrated. HDGF expression is strongly associated with the prognosis of many malignant diseases including pancreatic cancer, esophageal cancer, colorectal cancer, gastrointestinal stromal tumor, gastric cancer and heptocellular carcinoma (HCC)[25-31]. Recently, Lee et al[32] showed that individuals with HCC who shared a gene expression pattern with fetal hepatoblasts had a poor prognosis. The gene expression pattern that distinguished this subtype from other types of HCC contained the markers of oval cells (hepato-cholangio progenitor cells), thus suggesting that the HCC of this subtype may be derived from hepatic progenitor/stem cells. Two groups have shown that high expression of HDGF is closely related to the poor prognosis of HCC[30,31] and HDGF stimulates the growth of immature fetal hepatocytes[16]. Recently, we have found that HDGF is highly expressed in oval cells and promotes their proliferation (Iwamoto et al. in preparation), thereby suggesting the involvement of HDGF in the proliferation of immature hepatic cells. Therefore, HDGF may stimulate the proliferation of HCC cells derived from hepatic progenitor/stem cells and thereby cause the poor prognosis. HDGF expression may maintain the characteristics of immature cells and be associated with high growth activity of malignant cells. HDGF not only promotes hepatocyte proliferation but also inhibits their differentiation, indicating that HDGF is an oncofetal protein which participates both in the cellular growth and differentiation. Clarifying the functional role of HDGF would give us new insights into molecular mechanisms common to normal and malignant hepatic cell growth.

Since HDGF-null mice did not show any remarkable abnormalities, perhaps as a result of the compensation by HDGF-related genes, the down-regulation of HDGF should inhibit the growth of cancer cells without any serious side effects on normal organs. Therefore, HDGF is considered to be a candidate therapeutic target. Although little is known about the regulation of HDGF expression, we recently have found that Vitamin K2 negatively controls the transcription of HDGF in hepatoma cells[33]. However, the suppressive effects of the Vitamin K2 are limited and it is necessary to elucidate the whole regulation of the HDGF expression in hepatic cells, especially in hepatoma cells.

In conclusion, HDGF overexpressing transgenic mice showed the possible inhibitory role of HDGF on hepatocyte differentiation. The identification of both the regulation and signal transduction of HDGF makes it possible to obtain a better understanding of liver development, regeneration, and carcinogenesis.

COMMENTS

Background

During liver development, immature hepatocytes differentiate and acquire many metabolic functions. However, few studies have documented the growth and differentiation of post-natal hepatocytes.

Research frontiers

Hepatoma-derived growth factor (HDGF) is a heparin-binding protein, which is involved in the hepatocyte proliferation during liver development. However, the role of HDGF in hepatocyte differentiation has not been elucidated. In this study, the authors show the inhibitory role of HDGF in the hepatocyte maturation by use of the transgenic mice.

Innovations and breakthroughs

In this article, transgenic mice were established which overexpressed HDGF in hepatocytes under the transcriptional control of the mouse albumin promoter/enhancer. This is the first report about the transgenic mouse of HDGF. Furthermore, this is the first study to clarify the functional role of HDGF in the hepatocyte maturation.

Applications

The results show the possibility that HDGF may maintain the characteristics of immature cells with high growth activity. This study might represent a future strategy for the prevention or treatment of the diseases by the targeting of HDGF.

Terminology

HDGF is a heparin-binding acidic glycoprotein consisted of 240 amino acids, which is identified from the conditioned media of HuH-7 hepatoma cells. HDGF plays an important role in the organ development and tissue repair. HDGF has been demonstrated to be a unique growth factor involved in liver development, regeneration and carcinogenesis.

Peer review

On the whole, this study holds novelty and importance in understanding the process of hepatocyte maturation. While the study seemed well conducted, it is not sure from the text whether repeated analysis of Western blot has been conducted and to what extent the G-6-Pase and TO expressions were raised or dropped with time. I suggest densitometry measurements of repeated Western blot analysis and to provide a bar chart on the normalized readings.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank T Komori (Nagasaki University) for the helpful discussion.

Footnotes

Peer reviewer: Nathalie Wong, Professor, Department of Anatomical and Cellular Pathology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin NT, Hong Kong, China

S- Editor Zhang HN L- Editor Hughes D E- Editor Ma WH

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