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Physiological ranges of matrix rigidity modulate primary mouse hepatocyte function in part through hepatocyte nuclear factor 4 alpha.

  • Author(s): Desai, Seema S;
  • Tung, Jason C;
  • Zhou, Vivian X;
  • Grenert, James P;
  • Malato, Yann;
  • Rezvani, Milad;
  • Español-Suñer, Regina;
  • Willenbring, Holger;
  • Weaver, Valerie M;
  • Chang, Tammy T
  • et al.


Matrix rigidity has important effects on cell behavior and is increased during liver fibrosis; however, its effect on primary hepatocyte function is unknown. We hypothesized that increased matrix rigidity in fibrotic livers would activate mechanotransduction in hepatocytes and lead to inhibition of liver-specific functions. To determine the physiologically relevant ranges of matrix stiffness at the cellular level, we performed detailed atomic force microscopy analysis across liver lobules from normal and fibrotic livers. We determined that normal liver matrix stiffness was around 150 Pa and increased to 1-6 kPa in areas near fibrillar collagen deposition in fibrotic livers. In vitro culture of primary hepatocytes on collagen matrix of tunable rigidity demonstrated that fibrotic levels of matrix stiffness had profound effects on cytoskeletal tension and significantly inhibited hepatocyte-specific functions. Normal liver stiffness maintained functional gene regulation by hepatocyte nuclear factor 4 alpha (HNF4α), whereas fibrotic matrix stiffness inhibited the HNF4α transcriptional network. Fibrotic levels of matrix stiffness activated mechanotransduction in primary hepatocytes through focal adhesion kinase. In addition, blockade of the Rho/Rho-associated protein kinase pathway rescued HNF4α expression from hepatocytes cultured on stiff matrix.


Fibrotic levels of matrix stiffness significantly inhibit hepatocyte-specific functions in part by inhibiting the HNF4α transcriptional network mediated through the Rho/Rho-associated protein kinase pathway. Increased appreciation of the role of matrix rigidity in modulating hepatocyte function will advance our understanding of the mechanisms of hepatocyte dysfunction in liver cirrhosis and spur development of novel treatments for chronic liver disease. (Hepatology 2016;64:261-275).

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