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Differentiation. 2008 Sep;76(7):784-94. doi: 10.1111/j.1432-0436.2007.00260.x. Epub 2008 Jan 3.

Hepatic stellate cells display a functional vascular smooth muscle cell phenotype in a three-dimensional co-culture model with endothelial cells.

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Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Pathobiochemistry, RWTH Aachen, D-52073 Germany.


Hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) are pericytes of liver sinusoidal endothelial cells (LSECs) and activation of HSC into a myofibroblast-like phenotype (called transdifferentiation) is involved in several hepatic disease processes including neovascularization during liver metastasis, chronic and acute liver injury. While early smooth muscle cell (SMC) differentiation markers including SM alpha-actin and SM22alpha are expressed in a variety of non-SMC, expression of late-stage markers is far more restricted. Here, we found that in addition to early SMC markers, activated rat HSC express a large panel of characteristic late vascular SMC markers including SM myosin heavy chain, h1-calponin and h-caldesmon. Furthermore, myocardin, which is present exclusively in SMCs and cardiomyocytes and controls the transcription of a subset of early and late SMC markers, is highly expressed in activated HSC. We further studied activated HSC in a functional three-dimensional spheroidal co-culture system together with endothelial cells (EC). Co-culture spheroids of EC and SMC differentiate spontaneously and organize into a core of SMC and a surface layer of EC representing an inside-outside model of the physiological assembly of blood vessels. Replacing SMC by in vitro activated HSC resulted in a similar organized spheroid with differentiated, von-Willebrand factor producing, surface lining quiescent human umbilical vein endothelial cell and a core of HSC. In an in vitro angiogenesis assay, activated HSC induced quiescence in vascular EC-the hallmark of vascular SMC function. Co-spheroids of LSEC and activated HSC formed capillary-like sprouts in gel angiogenesis assays expressing the vascular EC marker VE-cadherin. Our findings indicate that activated HSC are capable to adapt a functional SMC phenotype and to induce formation of tubular sprouts by LSEC and vascular endothelial cells. Since tumors and tumor metastasis induce HSC activation, HSC may take part in tumor-induced neoangiogenesis by adapting SMC-like functions.

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