Development of organotypic liver cell cultures in three-dimensional biomaterial hydrogels

Melina Malinen, 2014

Abstract

"New organotypic liver cell cultures are needed to predict the metabolism, excretion, and safety of chemical compounds. Liver cell models are particularly important since the liver largely regulates the ultimate fate of compounds in the body. Approximately 70% of the drugs administered to the body are metabolized or excreted by the liver.

Animal models, cell cultures, and cell-free assays are the most common liver models. However, animal models and animal cells do not represent humans due to the interspecies differences in drug metabolizing enzymes and transporters. Instead, the most common cell-free methods, microsomes, are appropriate for drug metabolism studies, but the lack of drug transporters and transcription machinery prevents the complete evaluation of compounds. Primary human hepatocytes are capable of both drug metabolism and drug transport, and are, therefore, considered the gold standard to assess metabolism and toxicity of compoundsin vitro. Primary hepatocytes, however, suffer limited availability, high functional variability, and difficulty with maintaining differentiated phenotypes and functions in cell cultures. Therefore, continuous human liver cell lines, such as HepG2 and HepaRG, have been widely used to evaluate drugs and chemicals even though they have defects in their biotransformation functions. The advantages of cell lines are their good availability, easy maintenance, and inducible drug metabolism.

Generally, these cells are cultured in a two-dimensional (2D) manner that deviates from the physiological morphology and functions of the hepatocytes. The flattened 2D phenotype leads to reduced polarization and loss of important signaling pathways; this is likely to be a major reason for the failure in the prediction of drug metabolism, pharmacokinetics, and hepatotoxicity. It is believed that for more predictivein vitro models, the liver cells should be maintained in a three-dimensional (3D) microenvironment that allows reconstruction of polarization, and cell-cell and cell-extracellular matrix (ECM) contacts. The 3D cell cultures have been generated by different methods, such as cultures in matrices, scaffolds, bioreactors, and microfluidic platforms. Biomaterial hydrogels have demonstrated great potential for 2D liver cell culturing, but their potential to generate functional 3D liver cell cultures is largely unknown.

The main goal of this thesis was to establish improved 3D liver cell cultures with biomaterial hydrogels. Particular attention was focused on the effects of 3D hydrogels on drug metabolism and excretion, cytoarchitecture, and cellular differentiation of HepG2 and HepaRG cell lines. As a starting point, we studied the suitability of wood-derived nanofibrillar cellulose (NFC) hydrogel as a cell culture matrix. NFC hydrogel has not been studied in cell culture before; however, as a novel, defined, animal-free, and4 abundantly available material, it evoked interest for testing. Herein, the wood-derived NFC was proven to own rheological and structural characters that allow 3D cell culture. Moreover, the NFC was compatible with the HepG2 and HepaRG cells, allowing for the formation of 3D multicellular aggregates with increased apicobasal polarity. When compared to commercial hydrogels, the NFC supported the albumin secretion, an indicator of hepatocellular synthetic function, from HepG2 and HepaRG cells as well or even better. These results demonstrate the potential of woodderived NFC to function as an ECM analogue, and present the first HepaRG aggregate cultures.

Next, the effect of the RAD16-I peptide hydrogel on the HepG2 cell line was investigated in more detail. Immunofluorescence staining and vectorial transport showed formation of tissue-like arrangements including bile canaliculi-like structures and polar distribution of canalicular efflux transporters, multidrug resistance-associated protein 2 (MRP2), and multidrug resistance protein 1 (MDR1), in the spherical HepG2 cell aggregates. The study clearly demonstrated that the peptide hydrogel increases the apicobasal polarity and appearance of bile canaliculi structures in HepG2 cell cultures.

The plasticity of HepaRG liver cells was exploited to investigate the impact of 3D NFC and hyaluronan-gelatin (HG) hydrogel cultures on the phenotype of both undifferentiated HepaRG cells (early liver progenitors) and differentiated HepaRG cells (hepatocyte-like cells together with cholangiocyte-like cells). Based on the expression and activity of hepatic markers, drug metabolizing enzymes, and drug transporters, the 3D NFC and HG hydrogels promoted the differentiation of HepaRG liver progenitor cells when compared to the standard 2D technique. Instead, the 3D hydrogel cultures could not really improve the properties of differentiated HepaRG cells.

In conclusion, these findings reveal the capability of the NFC, RAD16-I peptide, and HG hydrogels to improve the properties of HepG2 and HepaRG human liver cells. The new spheroid cultures of HepG2 and HepaRG cells may represent added value for pharmacokinetic and toxicity predictions, showing a liver-like cytoarchitecture and demonstrating applicability for drug metabolism and transport studies. Overall, the results deepen our knowledge of the 3D liver cell cultures."

 

Open the Academic Dissertation

 

Melina Malinen, Development of organotypic liver cell cultures in three-dimensional biomaterial hydrogels, University of Helsinki, Finland, 2014.

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