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Cancer Res. 2017 Nov 15;77(22):6131-6143. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-17-1800. Epub 2017 Sep 26.

Proliferating EpCAM-Positive Ductal Cells in the Inflamed Liver Give Rise to Hepatocellular Carcinoma.

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Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Graduate School of Medicine, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan.
Evolutionary Medicine, Shiga Medical Center Research Institute, Shiga, Japan.
Division of Pathology, Shiga Medical Center Research Institute, Shiga, Japan.
Kansai Electric Power Hospital, Osaka, Japan.
Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Graduate School of Medicine, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) originates from regenerating liver cells with genetic alterations in chronically inflamed liver. Ductal cells and hepatocytes proliferate for liver regeneration, and proliferating ductal cells (PDC) derived from bile ductules have long been considered putative liver stem/progenitor cells and candidate cellular origins of HCC. The potential of PDC as tumor-originating cells, however, remains controversial in contrast to accumulating evidence that HCC originates from hepatocytes. Here, we demonstrate that PDCs expressing the established surface and cancer stem cell marker EpCAM give rise to HCC in inflamed liver. EpCAM-expressing PDCs were specifically labeled in newly developed EpcamCreERT2 mice and traced in a chemically induced liver injury model. Stepwise accumulation of genetic alterations in EpCAM-positive cells was induced by the mutagenesis activity of activation-induced cytidine deaminase using conditional transgenic mice. Lineage-tracing experiments revealed that labeled PDC differentiated into cholangiocytes, but not into hepatocytes, in the chemically damaged liver. Nevertheless, EpCAM-positive PDC with genetic alterations gave rise to HCC after 8 months of chemical administration. PDC-derived HCC showed histologic characteristics of concomitant ductule-like structures resembling human cholangiolocellular carcinoma (CLC) and exhibited serial transitions from PDC-like CLC cells to hepatocyte-like HCC cells. The Wnt signaling pathway was specifically upregulated in the CLC components of PDC-derived HCC. Our findings provide direct experimental evidence that EpCAM-expressing PDC could be a cellular origin of HCC, suggesting the existence of stem/progenitor-derived hepatocarcinogenesis. Cancer Res; 77(22); 6131-43. ©2017 AACR.

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