Gene networks and transcription factor motifs defining the differentiation of stem cells into hepatocyte-like cells

J Hepatol. 2015 Oct;63(4):934-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2015.05.013. Epub 2015 May 25.


Background & aims: The differentiation of stem cells to hepatocyte-like cells (HLC) offers the perspective of unlimited supply of human hepatocytes. However, the degree of differentiation of HLC remains controversial. To obtain an unbiased characterization, we performed a transcriptomic study with HLC derived from human embryonic and induced stem cells (ESC, hiPSC) from three different laboratories.

Methods: Genome-wide gene expression profiles of ESC and HLC were compared to freshly isolated and up to 14days cultivated primary human hepatocytes. Gene networks representing successful and failed hepatocyte differentiation, and the transcription factors involved in their regulation were identified.

Results: Gene regulatory network analysis demonstrated that HLC represent a mixed cell type with features of liver, intestine, fibroblast and stem cells. The "unwanted" intestinal features were associated with KLF5 and CDX2 transcriptional networks. Cluster analysis identified highly correlated groups of genes associated with mature liver functions (n=1057) and downregulated proliferation associated genes (n=1562) that approach levels of primary hepatocytes. However, three further clusters containing 447, 101, and 505 genes failed to reach levels of hepatocytes. Key TF of two of these clusters include SOX11, FOXQ1, and YBX3. The third unsuccessful cluster, controlled by HNF1, CAR, FXR, and PXR, strongly overlaps with genes repressed in cultivated hepatocytes compared to freshly isolated hepatocytes, suggesting that current in vitro conditions lack stimuli required to maintain gene expression in hepatocytes, which consequently also explains a corresponding deficiency of HLC.

Conclusions: The present gene regulatory network approach identifies key transcription factors which require modulation to improve HLC differentiation.

Keywords: Bioinformatics; Differentiation; Gene array; Gene networks; Hepatocytes; Stem cells; Transcriptomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Gene Regulatory Networks
  • Hepatocytes / cytology*
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Liver / cytology
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • RNA / genetics*
  • Transcription Factors / biosynthesis
  • Transcription Factors / genetics*
  • Transcriptome*


  • Transcription Factors
  • RNA