Role of gap junctions modulating hepatic vascular tone in cirrhosis

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Background & Aims:

Gap junctions are formed by connexins (Cx), a family of proteins that couple endothelial and smooth muscle cells in systemic vessels. In this context, Cx allow the transmission of signals modulating vascular tone. Recently, vascular Cx have been observed in liver cells implicated in liver blood flow regulation. Here, we investigated the role of Cx in the regulation of intrahepatic vascular tone in cirrhosis.


Livers of Sprague–Dawley control and cirrhotic (common bile duct ligation-CBDL and CCl4) rats were perfused, and concentration–effect curves in response to acetylcholine (ACh) precontracted with methoxamine were obtained in the presence of the specific Cx inhibitor 18-alpha-glycyrrhetinic acid or vehicle. Cx expression was assessed by immunofluorescence, western blot and reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction in liver tissue, hepatic stellate cells, sinusoidal endothelial cells and hepatocytes isolated from control and cirrhotic rat livers. Cx protein expression was also determined in cirrhotic human tissue.


Gap junction blockade markedly attenuated relaxation of hepatic vasculature in response to ACh in control (maximal relaxation, −55 ± 10.5% vs. −95.3 ± 10% with vehicle; P < 0.01) and CBDL rats (50.9 ± 18.5% vs. −18.7 ± 5.5% with vehicle; P = 0.01). Livers from CBDL rats and patients with cirrhosis exhibited Cx overexpression. By contrast, CCl4-cirrhotic rats did not show attenuated relaxation of hepatic vasculature after blockade and Cx expression was significantly lower than in controls.


Gap junctions may contribute to modulating portal pressure and intrahepatic vascular relaxation. Liver gap junctions may represent a new therapeutic target in cirrhotic portal hypertension.

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