Primary hepatocytes lose their differentiated functions rapidly when in culture. Our aim was to maintain the differentiated status of hepatocytes in vitro by means of vital hepatic stellate cells (HSCs), their soluble and particulate factors and lipid extracts. Hepatocytes were placed into collagen-coated culture dishes in the presence of HSCs at different ages of pre-culture, with or without direct cell to cell contacts, at different cell ratios and in monoculture with cellular HSC components in place of vital cells. Changes in morphology and enhancement of phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PCK) activity by glucagon were used to determine the differentiated status of hepatocytes in 2d-short-term culture. HSCs proved able to maintain the differentiated function of hepatocytes in co-culture either by direct cell contacts or via factors derived from HSC-conditioned medium. In comparison, however, without cellular contact to hepatocytes five to ten times as many HSCs were necessary to increase the PCK activity to the same degree as in the presence of intercellular contacts. Whereas stimulation in the presence of HSC/hepatocyte contacts was independent of HSC culture age only quiescent, resting HSCs (precultured for 1-2 d) were able to stimulate hepatocytes significantly via soluble factors. Culturing of hepatocytes with a lipid extract or a particulate fraction from HSCs clearly displayed a very strong beneficial effect on enzyme activity and morphology. HSCs maintain hepatocyte function and structure through preferentially cell-bound signalling and transfer of lipids.