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Chem Biol Interact. 2009 Sep 14;181(1):124-37. doi: 10.1016/j.cbi.2009.05.015. Epub 2009 May 29.

Serum-free collagen sandwich cultures of adult rat hepatocytes maintain liver-like properties long term: a valuable model for in vitro toxicity and drug-drug interaction studies.

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Merck KGaA, Merck Serono, Non-Clinical Development, Early and Explanatory Toxicology, Frankfurter Strasse 250, Darmstadt, Germany.


Cultures of primary hepatocytes from various species, including human, are used in several applications during pre-clinical drug development. Their use is however limited by cell survival and conservation of liver-specific functions in vitro. The differentiation status of hepatocytes in culture strongly depends on medium formulation and the extracellular matrix environment. We incubated primary rat hepatocytes for 10 days on collagen monolayer and in collagen sandwich cultures with or without serum. Restoration of polygonal cell shape and formation of functional bile canaliculi-like structures was stable only in serum-free sandwich cultures. Variations in general cell viability, as judged by the cellular ATP content, LDH release or apoptosis, were less pronounced between alternative cultures. The intracellular glutathione content was preserved close to in vivo levels especially in serum-free sandwich cultures. Basal activities of cytochrome P450 enzymes (P450) varied strongly between cultures. There was a minor effect on CYP1A but CYP2B activity was only detectable in the serum-free sandwich culture after 3 days and beyond. CYP2C activity was slightly elevated in both sandwich cultures, whereas CYP3A showed increased levels in both serum-free cultures. Inducibility of these P450s was fully maintained over time in serum-free collagen sandwich only. Gene expression was largely constant over time in serum-free sandwich cultures that was closest to liver. This liver-like property was supported by protein profiling results. Taken together, the serum-free collagen sandwich culture of primary rat hepatocytes maintained liver-like features over 10 days and is therefore a suitable model for long-term toxicity and drug-drug interaction studies.

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