Liver stromal cells restrict macrophage maturation and stromal IL-6 limits the differentiation of cirrhosis-linked macrophages

J Hepatol. 2022 May;76(5):1127-1137. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2021.12.036. Epub 2022 Jan 21.


Background & aims: Myeloid cells are key regulators of cirrhosis, a major cause of mortality worldwide. Because stromal cells can modulate the functionality of myeloid cells in vitro, targeting stromal-myeloid interactions has become an attractive potential therapeutic strategy. We aimed to investigate how human liver stromal cells impact myeloid cell properties and to understand the utility of a stromal-myeloid coculture system to study these interactions in the context of cirrhosis.

Methods: Single-cell RNA-sequencing analyses of non-cirrhotic (n = 7) and cirrhotic (n = 5) human liver tissue were correlated to the bulk RNA-sequencing results of in vitro cocultured human CD14+ and primary liver stromal cells. Complimentary mechanistic experiments and flow cytometric analysis were performed on human liver stromal-myeloid coculture systems.

Results: We found that stromal-myeloid coculture reduces the frequency CD14+ cell subsets transcriptionally similar to liver macrophages, showing that stromal cells inhibit the maturation of monocytes into macrophages. Stromal cells also influenced in vitro macrophage differentiation by skewing away from cirrhosis-linked CD9+ scar-associated macrophage-like cells and towards CD163+ Kupffer cell-like macrophages. We identify IL-6 production as a mechanism by which stromal cells limit CD9+ macrophage differentiation and find that local IL-6 levels are decreased in early-stage human liver disease compared to healthy liver tissue, suggesting a protective role for local IL-6 in the healthy liver.

Conclusions: Our work reveals an unanticipated role for liver stromal cells in impeding the maturation and altering the differentiation of macrophages and should prompt investigations into the role of local IL-6 production in the pathogenesis of liver disease. These studies provide a framework for investigating macrophage-stromal interactions during cirrhosis.

Lay summary: The impact of human liver stromal cells on myeloid cell maturation and differentiation in liver disease is incompletely understood. In this study, we present a mechanistic analysis using a primary in vitro human liver stromal-myeloid coculture system that is translated to liver disease using single-cell RNA sequencing analysis of cirrhotic and non-cirrhotic human liver tissue. Our work supports a role for stromal cell contact in restricting macrophage maturation and for stromal-derived IL-6 in limiting the differentiation of a cirrhotic macrophage subset.

Keywords: IL-6; cirrhosis; human; liver; macrophage differentiation; macrophage maturation; myeloid cells; single-cell RNA-seq; stromal cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cell Differentiation
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-6*
  • Liver Cirrhosis / etiology
  • Liver Diseases* / pathology
  • Macrophages / pathology
  • Monocytes / pathology
  • RNA
  • Stromal Cells / pathology


  • IL6 protein, human
  • Interleukin-6
  • RNA