Hepatocytes in liver injury: Victim, bystander, or accomplice in progressive fibrosis?

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Abstract

Chronic liver disease causes significant morbidity and mortality through progressive fibrosis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. The classical theory of fibrogenesis has hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) as the principal and only significant source of abnormal extracellular matrix (ECM). Further, HSCs have the major role in abnormal ECM turnover. It is the death of hepatocytes, as the initial target of injury, that initiates a sequence of events including the recruitment of inflammatory cells and activation of HSCs. Following this initial response, the ongoing insult to hepatocytes is regarded as perpetuating injury, but otherwise, hepatocytes are regarded as “victims” and “bystanders” in progressive fibrosis. Recent developments, however, challenge this view and suggest the concept of the hepatocyte being an active participant in liver injury. It is clear now that hepatocytes undergo phenotypic changes, adapt to injury, and react to the altered microenvironment. In this review, we describe studies showing that hepatocytes contribute to progressive fibrosis by direct manipulation of the surrounding ECM and through signaling to effector cells, particularly HSCs and intrahepatic immune cells. Together, these findings suggest an active “accomplice” role for the hepatocyte in progressive liver fibrosis and highlight novel pathways that could be targeted for development of future anti-fibrotic therapies.

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