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Am J Pathol. 2007 May;170(5):1750-62.

Histological and culture studies with respect to ABCG2 expression support the existence of a cancer cell hierarchy in human hepatocellular carcinoma.

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Department of Human Pathology, Kanazawa University Graduate School of Medicine, 13-1 Takaramachi, Kanazawa 920-8640, Japan.


In this study, we examined the possible involvement of progenitor cells in the carcinogenesis of human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) using tissue specimens and cell lines. We used ATP-binding cassette transporter ABCG2 as a progenitor cell marker. Immunohistochemically, ABCG2(+) hepatocytes were observed in the periportal areas of the dysplastic nodule, and ABCG2(+) cancer cells were also scattered or focally clustered in HCC. We sorted the cultured HCC cells (HuH7 and PLC5) into ABCG2(+) and ABCG2(-) subpopulations and then subcultured them for 4 weeks. ABCG2(+) cells could generate ABCG2(+) and ABCG2(-) progenies during subculture, whereas ABCG2(-) cells bore only ABCG2(-) cells, suggesting that a cancer cell hierarchy with reference to ABCG2 exists in HCC cells and that ABCG2(+) cells reside at the higher rank in that hierarchy. Interestingly, other progenitor cell markers including cytokeratin 19 and alpha-fetoprotein were mainly expressed in ABCG2(+) subpopulations. Conversely, albumin expression was more intense in ABCG2(-) cells. In addition, the expression patterns of transcription factors (GATA6, CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein alpha, and CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein beta) in ABCG2(+) and ABCG2(-) cells resembled those during normal liver development. In conclusion, this study suggests that cancer cells with ABCG2 expression might play a central role in hepatocarcinogenesis and the maintenance of the cancer cell hierarchy of human HCC.

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