Current in vitro liver models provide three-dimensional (3-D) microenvironments in combination with tissue engineering technology and can perform more accurate in vivo mimicry than two-dimensional models. However, a human cell-based, functionally mature liver model is still desired, which would provide an alternative to animal experiments and resolve low-prediction issues on species differences. Here, we prepared hybrid hydrogels of varying elasticity and compared them with a normal liver, to develop a more mature liver model that preserves liver properties in vitro. We encapsulated HepaRG cells, either alone or with supporting cells, in a biodegradable hybrid hydrogel. The elastic modulus of the 3D liver dynamically changed during culture due to the combined effects of prolonged degradation of hydrogel and extracellular matrix formation provided by the supporting cells. As a result, when the elastic modulus of the 3D liver model converges close to that of the in vivo liver (≅ 2.3 to 5.9 kPa), both phenotypic and functional maturation of the 3D liver were realized, while hepatic gene expression, albumin secretion, cytochrome p450-3A4 activity, and drug metabolism were enhanced. Finally, the 3D liver model was expanded to applications with embryonic stem cell-derived hepatocytes and primary human hepatocytes, and it supported prolonged hepatocyte survival and functionality in long-term culture. Our model represents critical progress in developing a biomimetic liver system to simulate liver tissue remodeling, and provides a versatile platform in drug development and disease modeling, ranging from physiology to pathology.
Statement of significance: We provide a functionally improved 3D liver model that recapitulates in vivo liver stiffness. We have experimentally addressed the issues of orchestrated effects of mechanical compliance, controlled matrix formation by stromal cells in conjunction with hepatic differentiation, and functional maturation of hepatocytes in a dynamic 3D microenvironment. Our model represents critical progress in developing a biomimetic liver system to simulate liver tissue remodeling, and provides a versatile platform in drug development and disease modeling, ranging from physiology to pathology. Additionally, recent advances in the stem-cell technologies have made the development of 3D organoid possible, and thus, our study also provides further contribution to the development of physiologically relevant stem-cell-based 3D tissues that provide an elasticity-based predefined biomimetic 3D microenvironment.
Keywords: 3D culture; Biomimetic liver; Elastic modulus; Hepatocyte; Hybrid hydrogel; Semi-interpenetrating networks (Semi-IPNs).
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