Canalicular ABC transporters and liver disease

J Pathol. 2012 Jan;226(2):300-15. doi: 10.1002/path.3019.


Bile is a complex mixture that includes bile salts, the membrane phospholipid phosphatidylcholine (PC), cholesterol and various endobiotic and xenobiotic toxins, each of which is secreted across the canalicular membrane of the hepatocyte by different ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters. The bile salts are essential for the emulsification of dietary fat and lipophilic vitamins. They are synthesized from cholesterol in the hepatocyte and their secretion by the bile salt export pump (BSEP or ABCB11) drives bile flow and is the starting point for the enterohepatic cycle. The detergent nature of bile salts that is key to their physiological role also means that they are inherently cytotoxic, and failure to secrete bile (intraheptic cholestasis) can precipitate severe liver disease and mortality. Such progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis (PFIC) comes in three types of autosomal recessive disease. PFIC2 is caused by mutation to ABCB11. PFIC3 is caused by mutation of a closely related ABC transporter, ABCB4, which flops PC into the outerleaflet of the canalicular membrane. The flopped PC is extracted by the bile salts in the canaliculus to form a mixed micelle that reduces bile salt detergent activity. The third protein that is essential for bile flow from the hepatocyte is a member of a different class of transporter protein, a P-type ATPase, ATP8B1. Mutation of ATP8B1 causes PFIC1, but ATP8B1 does not transport a component of bile into the canaliculus. Data from different laboratories, published this year, suggests two different roles for ATP8B1 in the hepatocyte: a lipid flippase, that counterbalances the deleterious effects of ABCB4 on barrier function of the canalicular membrane; and an anchor of the actin cytoskeleton necessary to form the microvilli of the brush border. These latest discoveries are described, along with a spectrum of cholestatic disorders whose aetiologies lie in these and other transporters of the canalicular membrane.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / genetics
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Bile Acids and Salts / metabolism
  • Bile Canaliculi / metabolism
  • Biological Transport, Active / physiology
  • Cholestasis, Intrahepatic / genetics
  • Cholestasis, Intrahepatic / metabolism*
  • Cholestasis, Intrahepatic / therapy
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Microvilli
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Phospholipid Transfer Proteins
  • Sitosterols / blood


  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters
  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Phospholipid Transfer Proteins
  • Sitosterols