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Toxicol Pathol. 2005;33(1):27-34.

New insights into functional aspects of liver morphology.

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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709, USA.


The liver is structurally and functionally complex and has been considered second only to brain in its complexity. Many mysteries still exist in this heterogeneous tissue whose functional unit of the lobule has continued to stump morphologists for over 300 years. The primary lobule, proposed by Matsumoto in 1979, has been gaining acceptance as the functional unit of the liver over other conceptual views because it's based on vessel architecture and includes the classic lobule as a secondary feature. Although hepatocytes comprise almost 80% of the liver, there are at least another dozen cell types, many of which provide "cross-talk" and play important functional roles in the normal and diseased liver. The distribution and functional roles of all cells in the liver must be carefully considered in both the analysis and interpretation of research data, particularly data in the area of genomics and "phenotypic anchoring" of gene expression results. Discoveries regarding the functional heterogeneity of the various liver cell types, including hepatocytes, hepatic stellate cells, sinusoidal endothelia, and Kupffer cells, are providing new insights into our understanding of the development, prevention and treatment of liver disease. For example, functional differences along zonal patterns (centrilobular or periportal) have been demonstrated for sinusoidal endothelium, Kupffer cells, and hepatocytes and can explain the gradients and manifestations of disease observed within lobules. Intralobular gradients of bile uptake, glycogen depletion, glutamine synthetase, and carboxylesterase by hepatocytes; widened fenestrations in centrilobular sinusoidal lining cells; and differences in the components of centrilobular extracellular matrix or function of Kupffer cells have been demonstrated. Awareness of the complexities and heterogeneity of the liver will add to a greater understanding of liver function and disease processes that lead to toxicity, cancer, and other diseases.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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