Scarring cells revert to inactive state as liver heals

This is a photomicrograph of cirrhotic liver tissue, with extensive fibrotic scarring (stained blue). Credit: UC San Diego School of Medicine

An international team of scientists, led by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, report that significant numbers of myofibroblasts – cells that produce the fibrous scarring in chronic liver injury – revert to an inactive phenotype as the liver heals. The discovery in mouse models could ultimately help lead to new human therapies for reversing fibrosis in the liver, and in other organs like the lungs and kidneys.

The work is published in the May 7, 2012 online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The take-away message is two-fold," said David A. Brenner, MD, vice chancellor for Health Sciences, dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine and senior author of the paper. "First, we've shown that fibrosis is markedly reversible and we now better understand how it happens. Second, we can start looking for ways to direct active myofibroblasts to stop producing scar, and become inactive. We can focus on developing drugs that promote cell change and regression. It raises the bar for prospective treatment tremendously."

Liver fibrosis is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. It is the result of chronic caused by such agents as the hepatitis B and C viruses, alcoholic liver disease and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. The condition is manifested by extensive scarring of liver tissue and the organ's progressive inability to filter body toxins. Liver fibrosis precedes the development of liver cancer. Often, the only treatment for end-stage liver fibrosis is an organ transplant.

Fibrosis begins when infectious agents or excessive alcohol consumption trigger activation of hepatic stellate cells (HSCs), which normally act as quiescent storage units for nutrients like vitamin A in the liver. Once activated, these HSCs acquire characteristics of another cell type called myofibroblasts, which are characterized by their abundant production of extracellular matrix proteins such as collagen. These proteins accumulate as scar tissue, rendering the organ progressively dysfunctional.

However, if the source of the liver injury is successfully treated or eliminated, the liver can repair itself. In part, this is due to the activated HSCs undergoing apoptosis (programmed cell death) and being removed by other cells. But UC San Diego scientists say that, in tests using a mouse model, as many as half of all activated HSCs persist. They do not die, but rather revert to an inactive phenotype during fibrotic regression.

"After one month of regression, these cells have stopped producing collagen. They've upregulated some of the genes associated with quiescence and returned to their normal location in the liver," said Tatiana Kisseleva, MD, PhD, an assistant research scientist and first author of the study.

It's not clear why these myofibroblasts survive. Also, scientists note the reverted myofibroblasts do not completely return to their original quiescent state. "They're still more susceptible to repetitive injury than original quiescent HSCs," said Kisseleva, who noted future tests will investigate whether additional reversion occurs with more time.

Kisseleva suggested the findings present another avenue for treating , especially in possibly reverting fibrosis and cirrhosis, which accounts for roughly 27,000 deaths in the United States annually.

Fibrosis occurs in other organs as well, such as the kidneys and lungs, with comparable deadly effect. Recent studies indicate fibrotic reversibility in these organs as well. "Our findings are applicable to other fibrosing organs," said Kisseleva. "Instead of killing damaged cells, we might be able to de-activate them and revert them to healthy originals."

Related Stories

New study upends thinking about how liver disease develops

Dec 20, 2010

In the latest of a series of related papers, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Austria and elsewhere, present a new and more definitive explanation of how fibrotic ...

A potential therapeutic agent for hepatic fibrosis

Aug 25, 2009

Accumulating evidence suggests that connective tissue growth factor (CCN2) plays a central role in fibrotic conditions in many organ systems. Fibrosis is a scarring condition that is characterized by excessive collagen production ...

Recommended for you

Growing a blood vessel in a week

18 hours ago

The technology for creating new tissues from stem cells has taken a giant leap forward. Three tablespoons of blood are all that is needed to grow a brand new blood vessel in just seven days. This is shown ...

Testing time for stem cells

21 hours ago

DefiniGEN is one of the first commercial opportunities to arise from Cambridge's expertise in stem cell research. Here, we look at some of the fundamental research that enables it to supply liver and pancreatic ...

Team finds key signaling pathway in cause of preeclampsia

Oct 23, 2014

A team of researchers led by a Wayne State University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology has published findings that provide novel insight into the cause of preeclampsia, the leading cause ...

Rapid test to diagnose severe sepsis

Oct 23, 2014

A new test, developed by University of British Columbia researchers, could help physicians predict within an hour if a patient will develop severe sepsis so they can begin treatment immediately.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sean_W
not rated yet May 07, 2012
Will existing collagen degrade when the fibroblasts revert or is it permanent?