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Am J Pathol. Aug 1996; 149(2): 449–462.
PMCID: PMC1865318

Cell-type-specific expression of neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM) in Ito cells of rat liver. Up-regulation during in vitro activation and in hepatic tissue repair.


Ito cells (lipocytes, stellate cells) are regarded as the principle matrix-producing cell of the liver and have been shown recently to express glial fibrillary acidic protein, an intermediate filament typically found in glia cells of the nervous system. The present study examines 1) whether Ito cells of rat liver express central nervous system typical adhesion molecules, namely, neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM), in a cell-type-specific manner and 2) whether N-CAM expression is affected by activation of Ito cells in vitro and during rat liver injury in vivo. As assessed by reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, Northern blotting, Western blotting, and immunocytochemistry of freshly isolated and cultivated hepatic cells, N-CAM expression was restricted to Ito cells and was absent in hepatocytes, Kupffer cells, and sinusoidal endothelial cells. Ito cells expressed predominantly N-CAM-coding transcripts of 6.1 and 4.8 kb in size and 140-kd isoforms of the N-CAM protein, which was localized on the cell surface membrane of Ito cells. In parallel to glial fibrillary acidic protein down-regulation and smooth muscle alpha-actin up-regulation, N-CAM expression was increased during in vitro transformation of Ito cells from resting to activated (myofibroblast-like) cells and by the fibrogenic mediator transforming growth factor-beta 1. By immunohistochemistry, N-CAM was detected in normal rat liver in the portal field as densely packed material and in a spot as well as fiber-like pattern probably representing nerve structures. However, after liver injury, N-CAM expression became detectable in mesenchymal cells within and around the necrotic area and within fibrotic septae. In serially cut tissue sections, N-CAM-positive cells were predominantly co-distributed with smooth muscle alpha-actin-positive cells rather than glial fibrillary acidic protein-positive cells, especially in fibrotic livers. The experimental results illustrate that N-CAM positivity in the liver cannot be solely ascribed to nerve endings as, among the different types of resident liver cells, Ito cells specifically express N-CAM in vitro and presumably in vivo. In addition to its role as potential cell-type-specific marker protein for activated Ito cells, the induction of N-CAM expression might illustrate a mechanism by which mesenchymal cell proliferation might be inhibited when tissue repair is concluded.

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