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Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2017 Oct;242(16):1605-1616. doi: 10.1177/1535370217707731. Epub 2017 May 3.

Pre-clinical and clinical investigations of metabolic zonation in liver diseases: The potential of microphysiology systems.

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1 Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA.
2 Drug Discovery Institute, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA.
3 Department of Computational & Systems Biology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA.
4 Cancer Institute, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh PA 15232, USA.
5 Department of Medicine, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA.


The establishment of metabolic zonation within a hepatic lobule ascribes specific functions to hepatocytes based on unique, location-dependent gene expression patterns. Recently, there have been significant developments in the field of metabolic liver zonation. A little over a decade ago, the role of β-catenin signaling was identified as a key regulator of gene expression and function in pericentral hepatocytes. Since then, additional molecules have been identified that regulate the pattern of Wnt/β-catenin signaling within a lobule and determine gene expression and function in other hepatic zones. Currently, the molecular basis of metabolic zonation in the liver appears to be a 'push and pull' between signaling pathways. Such compartmentalization not only provides an efficient assembly line for hepatocyte functions but also can account for restricting the initial hepatic damage and pathology from some hepatotoxic drugs to specific zones, possibly enabling effective regeneration and restitution responses from unaffected cells. Careful analysis and experimentation have also revealed that many pathological conditions in the liver lobule are spatially heterogeneous. We will review current research efforts that have focused on examination of the role and regulation of such mechanisms of hepatocyte adaptation and repair. We will discuss how the pathological organ-specific microenvironment affects cell signaling and metabolic liver zonation, especially in steatosis, viral hepatitis, and hepatocellular carcinoma. We will discuss how the use of new human microphysiological platforms will lead to a better understanding of liver disease progression, diagnosis, and therapies. In conclusion, we aim to provide insights into the role and regulation of metabolic zonation and function using traditional and innovative approaches. Impact statement Liver zonation of oxygen tension along the liver sinusoids has been identified as a critical liver microenvironment that impacts specific liver functions such as intermediary metabolism of amino acids, lipids, and carbohydrates, detoxification of xenobiotics and as sites for initiation of liver diseases. To date, most information on the role of zonation in liver disease including, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) have been obtained from animal models. It is now possible to complement animal studies with human liver, microphysiology systems (MPS) containing induced pluripotent stem cells engineered to create disease models where it is also possible to control the in vitro liver oxygen microenvironment to define the role of zonation on the mechanism(s) of disease progression. The field now has the tools to investigate human liver disease progression, diagnosis, and therapeutic development.


Liver zonation; hepatocytes; induced pluripotent stem cells; liver diseases; microfluidics; microphysiology systems

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