The development of predictive in vitro stem cell-derived hepatic models for toxicological drug screening is an increasingly important topic. Herein, umbilical cord tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells (hnMSCs) underwent hepatic differentiation using an optimized three-step core protocol of 24 days that mimicked liver embryogenesis with further exposure to epigenetic markers, namely the histone deacetylase inhibitor trichostatin A (TSA), the cytidine analogue 5-azacytidine (5-AZA) and dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). FGF-2 and FGF-4 were also tested to improve endoderm commitment and foregut induction during Step 1 of the differentiation protocol, being HHEX expression increased with FGF-2 (4 ng/mL). DMSO (1%, v/v) when added at day 10 enhanced cell morphology, glycogen storage ability, enzymatic activity and induction capacity. Moreover, the stability of the hepatic phenotype under the optimized differentiation conditions was examined up to day 34. Our findings showed that hepatocyte-like cells (HLCs) acquired the ability to metabolize glucose, produce albumin and detoxify ammonia. Global transcriptional analysis of the HLCs showed a partial hepatic differentiation degree. Global analysis of gene expression in the different cells revealed shared expression of gene groups between HLCs and human primary hepatocytes (hpHeps) that were not observed between HepG2 and hpHeps. In addition, bioinformatics analysis of gene expression data placed HLCs between the HepG2 cell line and hpHeps and distant from hnMSCs. The enhanced hepatic differentiation observed was supported by the presence of the hepatic drug transporters OATP-C and MRP-2 and gene expression of the hepatic markers CK18, TAT, AFP, ALB, HNF4A and CEBPA; and by their ability to display stable UGT-, EROD-, ECOD-, CYP1A1-, CYP2C9- and CYP3A4-dependent activities at levels either comparable with or even higher than those observed in primary hepatocytes and HepG2 cells. Overall, an improvement of the hepatocyte-like phenotype was achieved for an extended culture time suggesting a role of the epigenetic modifiers in hepatic differentiation and maturation and presenting hnMSC-HLCs as an advantageous alternative for drug discovery and in vitro toxicology testing.
Keywords: CYP metabolism; Drug transporters; Epigenetic modifiers; Hepatocyte-like cells; hnMSC.