Published online Nov 7, 2010. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v16.i41.5148
Revised: July 21, 2010
Accepted: July 28, 2010
Published online: November 7, 2010
Liver is unique in its capacity to regenerate in response to injury or tissue loss. Hepatocytes and other liver cells are able to proliferate and repopulate the liver. However, when this response is impaired, the contribution of hepatic progenitors becomes very relevant. Here, we present an update of recent studies on growth factors and cytokine-driven intracellular pathways that govern liver stem/progenitor cell expansion and differentiation, and the relevance of these signals in liver development, regeneration and carcinogenesis. Tyrosine kinase receptor signaling, in particular, c-Met, epidermal growth factor receptors or fibroblast growth factor receptors, contribute to proliferation, survival and differentiation of liver stem/progenitor cells. Different evidence suggests a dual role for the transforming growth factor (TGF)-β signaling pathway in liver stemness and differentiation. On the one hand, TGF-β mediates progression of differentiation from a progenitor stage, but on the other hand, it contributes to the expansion of liver stem cells. Hedgehog family ligands are necessary to promote hepatoblast proliferation but need to be shut off to permit subsequent hepatoblast differentiation. In the same line, the Wnt family and β-catenin/T-cell factor pathway is clearly involved in the maintenance of liver stemness phenotype, and its repression is necessary for liver differentiation during development. Collectively, data indicate that liver stem/progenitor cells follow their own rules and regulations. The same signals that are essential for their activation, expansion and differentiation are good candidates to contribute, under adequate conditions, to the paradigm of transformation from a pro-regenerative to a pro-tumorigenic role. From a clinical perspective, this is a fundamental issue for liver stem/progenitor cell-based therapies.