New hepatocyte in vitro systems for drug metabolism: metabolic capacity and recommendations for application in basic research and drug development, standard operation procedures

Drug Metab Rev. 2003 May-Aug;35(2-3):145-213. doi: 10.1081/dmr-120023684.


Primary hepatocytes represent a well-accepted in vitro cell culture system for studies of drug metabolism, enzyme induction, transplantation, viral hepatitis, and hepatocyte regeneration. Recently, a multicentric research program has been initiated to optimize and standardize new in vitro systems with hepatocytes. In this article, we discuss five of these in vitro systems: hepatocytes in suspension, perifusion culture systems, liver slices, co-culture systems of hepatocytes with intestinal bacteria, and 96-well plate bioreactors. From a technical point of view, freshly isolated or cryopreserved hepatocytes in suspension represent a readily available and easy-to-handle in vitro system that can be used to characterize the metabolism of test substances. Hepatocytes in suspension correctly predict interspecies differences in drug metabolism, which is demonstrated with pantoprazole and propafenone. A limitation of the hepatocyte suspensions is the length of the incubation period, which should not exceed 4hr. This incubation period is sufficiently long to determine the metabolic stability and to allow identification of the main metabolites of a test substance, but may be too short to allow generation of some minor, particularly phase II metabolites, that contribute less than 3% to total metabolism. To achieve longer incubation periods, hepatocyte culture systems or bioreactors are used. In this research program, two bioreactor systems have been optimized: the perifusion culture system and 96-well plate bioreactors. The perifusion culture system consists of collagen-coated slides allowing the continuous superfusion of a hepatocyte monolayer with culture medium as well as establishment of a constant atmosphere of 13% oxygen, 82% nitrogen, and 5% CO2. This system is stable for at least 2 weeks and guarantees a remarkable sensitivity to enzyme induction, even if weak inducers are tested. A particular advantage of this systemis that the same bioreactor can be perfused with different concentrations of a test substance in a sequential manner. The 96-well plate bioreactor runs 96 modules in parallel for pharmacokinetic testing under aerobic culture conditions. This system combines the advantages of a three-dimensional culture system in collagen gel, controlled oxygen supply, and constant culture medium conditions, with the possibility of high throughput and automatization. A newly developed co-culture system of hepatocytes with intestinal bacteria offers the possibility to study the metabolic interaction between liver and intestinal microflora. It consists of two chambers separated by a permeable polycarbonate membrane, where hepatocytes are cultured under aerobic and intestinal bacteria in anaerobic conditions. Test substances are added to the aerobic side to allow their initial metabolism by the hepatocytes, followed by the metabolism by intestinal bacteria at the anaerobic side. Precision-cut slices represent an alternative to isolated hepatocytes and have been used fo the investigation of hepatic metabolism, hepatotoxicity, and enzyme induction. A specific advantage of liver slices is the possibility to study toxic effects on hepatocytes that are mediated or modified by nonparenchymal cells (e.g., by cytokine release from Kupffer cells) because the physiological liver microarchitecture is maintained in cultured slices. For all these in vitro systems, a prevalidation has been performed using standard assays for phase I and II enzymes. Representative results with test substances and recommendations for application of these in vitro systems, as well as standard operation procedures are given.

Publication types

  • Guideline
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Hepatocytes / cytology*
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design / standards*
  • Technology, Pharmaceutical / instrumentation
  • Technology, Pharmaceutical / methods
  • Technology, Pharmaceutical / standards*