Background/aims: The activation of hepatic stellate cells is a key initiating event in hepatic fibrogenesis. Although TGFbeta1 is a potent inducer of collagen alpha1(I) expression in vitro and elevated levels of TGFbeta1 are found in patients and experimental animals with hepatic fibrosis and cirrhosis, the role of increased TGFbeta1 in the initiation of hepatic stellate cell activation in vivo is unknown. We used two experimental approaches to study this relationship: 1) Induction of an acute liver injury with carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) in normal and TGFbeta1-knockout (ko) mice, and 2) overexpression of TGFbeta1 in the liver of wild-type mice using a recombinant replication-deficient adenovirus encoding human TGFbeta1 (Ad-TGFbeta1).
Methods: TGFbeta1-ko mice (n=6) and normal mice (n=6) were injected once intraperitoneally (i.p.) with CCl4 (1 microl/g BW) or mineral oil. Wild-type mice (n=3) were injected intravenously with Ad-TGFbeta1 (10(10) pfu) or a control virus expressing beta-galactosidase (Ad-LacZ, 10(10) pfu). Animals were sacrificed after 3 days and total liver RNA was prepared. The expression of collagen alpha1(I) mRNA normalized to GAPDH mRNA was measured by RNase protection assay, asmooth muscle actin (alpha-sma) protein expression was analyzed by Western blotting. The expression of TGFbeta1, TGFbeta2, and TGFbeta3 mRNAs were determined semi-quantitatively with RT-PCR.
Results: The collagen alpha1(I) mRNA was increased 10-fold in CCl4-treated wild-type mice compared to the controls. This increase was reduced about 80% in the TGFbeta1-ko mice. The TGFbeta1 mRNA levels in the wild-type mice were proportional to the collagen alpha1(I) mRNA levels. a-sma, a marker of hepatic stellate cell activation, was expressed earlier and at a higher level in wild-type mice than TGFbeta-ko mice after CCl4 treatment. The Ad-TGFbeta1 infected mice had 14-fold higher hepatic TGFbeta protein levels and 15-fold higher collagen alpha1(I) mRNA levels than the Ad-LacZ-infected control mice. Collagen alpha1(I) mRNA levels were proportional to the transgenic TGFbeta1 mRNA levels, while the endogenous TGFbeta1 was only slightly higher than in the controls. TGFbeta2 and TGFbeta3 mRNA levels were elevated in CCl4-treated wild-type and TGFbeta1-ko mice and in Ad-TGFbeta1-infected mice compared to the controls.
Conclusions: Absence of TGFbeta1 inhibits hepatic collagen alpha1(I) mRNA and alpha-sma protein expression by the toxic stimulus CCl4, and targeted TGFbeta1 overexpression increases collagen alpha1(I) mRNA and alpha-sma protein levels in the liver in vivo. Other TGFbeta family members do not compensate for the TGFbeta1 deficiency. This indicates that TGFbeta1 accelerates, but is not absolutely required, for the activation of hepatic stellate cells.