Characteristics of SOX9-positive progenitor-like cells during cholestatic liver regeneration in biliary atresia

Stem Cell Res Ther. 2022 Mar 21;13(1):114. doi: 10.1186/s13287-022-02795-2.


Background: The progression of Biliary Atresia (BA) is associated with the number of reactive ductular cells (RDCs) whose heterogeneity in origin and evolution in humans remains unknown. SOX9-positive liver progenitor-like cells (LPLCs) have been shown to participate in RDCs and new hepatocyte formation during cholestatic liver regeneration in an animal model, which implies the possibility that hepatocyte-reprogrammed LPLCs could be a source of RDCs in BA. The present study aimed to elucidate the characteristics of SOX9-positive LPLCs in BA for exploring new possible therapeutic targets by manipulating the bi-differentiation process of LPLCs to prevent disease progression.

Methods: Twenty-eight patients, including 24 patients with BA and 4 patients with Congenital Choledochal Cyst as the control group, were retrospectively recruited. Liver biopsy samples were classified histologically using a 4-point scale based on fibrosis severity. LPLCs were detected by SOX9 and HNF4A double positive staining. Single immunohistochemistry, double immunohistochemistry, and multiple immunofluorescence staining were used to determine the different cell types and characteristics of LPLCs.

Results: The prognostic predictors of BA, namely total bile acid (TBA), RDCs, and fibrosis, were correlated to the emergence of LPLCs. SOX9 and HNF4A double-positive LPLCs co-stained rarely with relevant markers of portal hepatic progenitor cells (portal-HPCs), including CK19, CK7, EPCAM, PROM1 (CD133), TROP2, and AFP. Under cholestasis conditions, LPLCs acquired superior proliferation and anti-senescence ability among hepatocytes. Moreover, LPLCs arranged as a pseudo-rosette structure appeared from the periportal parenchyma to the portal region, which implied the differentiation from hepatocyte-reprogrammed LPLCs to RDCs with the progression of cholestasis.

Conclusions: LPLCs are associated with disease progression and prognostic factors of BA. The bipotent characteristics of LPLCs are different from those of portal-HPCs. As cholestasis progresses, LPLCs appear to gain superior proliferation and anti-senescence ability and continually differentiate to RDCs.

Keywords: Biliary atresia; Hepatic progenitor cells; Liver progenitor-like cells; Reactive ductular cells; SOX9.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biliary Atresia* / complications
  • Biliary Atresia* / metabolism
  • Biliary Atresia* / pathology
  • Cholestasis* / complications
  • Cholestasis* / pathology
  • Humans
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Liver Regeneration
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SOX9 Transcription Factor* / genetics


  • SOX9 Transcription Factor
  • SOX9 protein, human