Background and objective: Persistent hepatic progenitor cells (HPC) activation resulting in ductular reaction (DR) is responsible for pathologic liver repair in cholangiopathies. Also, HPC/DR expansion correlates with fibrosis in several chronic liver diseases, including steatohepatitis. Increasing evidence indicates Notch signaling as a key regulator of HPC/DR response in biliary and more in general liver injuries. Therefore, we aimed to investigate the role of Notch during HPC/DR activation in a mouse model of steatohepatitis. Methods: Steatohepatitis was generated using methionine-choline deficient (MCD) diet. For hepatocyte lineage tracing, R26R-YFP mice were infected with AAV8-TBG-Cre. Results: MCD diet promoted a strong HPC/DR response that progressively diffused in the lobule, and correlated with increased fibrosis and TGF-β1 expression. Notch signaling was unchanged in laser-capture microdissected HPC/DR, whereas Notch receptors were down regulated in hepatocytes. However, in-vivo lineage tracing experiments identified discrete hepatocytes showing Notch-1 activation and expressing (the Notch-dependent) Sox9. Stimulation of AML-12 hepatocyte-cell line with immobilized Jag1 induced Sox9 and down-regulated albumin and BSEP expression. TGF-β1 treatment in primary hepatic stellate cells (HSC) induced Jag1 expression. In MCD diet-fed mice, αSMA-positive HSC were localized around Sox9 expressing hepatocytes, suggesting that Notch activation in hepatocytes was promoted by TGF-β1 stimulated HSC. In-vivo Notch inhibition reduced HPC response and fibrosis progression. Conclusion: Our data suggest that Notch signaling is an important regulator of DR and that in steatohepatitis, hepatocytes exposed to Jag1-positive HSC, contribute to pathologic DR by undergoing Notch-mediated differentiation towards an HPC-like phenotype. Given the roles of Notch in fibrosis and liver cancer, these data suggest mesenchymal expression of Jag1 as an alternative therapeutic target.
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