Efficient Differentiation of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells into Liver Cells

This article has been accepted and is currently in production


The liver detoxifies harmful substances, secretes vital proteins, and executes key metabolic activities, thus sustaining life. Consequently, liver failure—which can be caused by chronic alcohol intake, hepatitis, acute poisoning, or other insults—is a severe condition that can culminate in bleeding, jaundice, coma, and eventually death. However, approaches to treat liver failure, as well as studies of liver function and disease, have been stymied in part by the lack of a plentiful supply of human liver cells. To this end, this protocol details the efficient differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) into hepatocyte-like cells, guided by a developmental roadmap that describes how liver fate is specified across six consecutive differentiation steps. By manipulating developmental signaling pathways to promote liver differentiation and to explicitly suppress the formation of unwanted cell fates, this method efficiently generates populations of human liver bud progenitors and hepatocyte-like cells by days 6 and 18 of PSC differentiation, respectively. This is achieved through the temporally-precise control of developmental signaling pathways, exerted by small molecules and growth factors in a serum-free culture medium. Differentiation in this system occurs in monolayers and yields hepatocyte-like cells that express characteristic hepatocyte enzymes and have the ability to engraft a mouse model of chronic liver failure. The ability to efficiently generate large numbers of human liver cells in vitro has ramifications for treatment of liver failure, for drug screening, and for mechanistic studies of liver disease.