Background: Primary hepatocytes, one of the most widely used cell types for toxicological studies, have a very limited life span and must be freshly derived from mice or even humans. Attempts to use stable cell lines maintaining the enzymatic pattern of liver cells have been so far unsatisfactory. Stress proteins (heat shock proteins, HSPs) have been proposed as general markers of cellular injury and their use for environmental monitoring has been suggested. The aim of this work is to develop a bi-transgenic hepatocyte cell line in order to evaluate the ability of various organic and inorganic chemicals to induce the expression of the HSP70 driven reporter gene. We previously described transgenic mice (Hsp70/hGH) secreting high levels of human Growth Hormone (hGH) following exposure to toxic compounds in vivo and in vitro in primary cultures derived from different organs. In addition, we also reported another transgenic model (AT/cytoMet) allowing the reproducible immortalization of untransformed hepatocytes retaining in vitro complex liver functions. Results: The transgenic mouse line Hsp70/hGH was crossed with the AT/cytoMet transgenic strain permitting the reproducible immortalization of untransformed hepatocytes. From double transgenic animals we derived several stable hepatic cell lines (MMH-GH) which showed a highly-differentiated phenotype as judged from the retention of epithelial cell polarity and the profile of gene expression, including hepatocyte-enriched transcription factors and detoxifying enzymes. In these cell lines, stresses induced by exposure to inorganic [Sodium Arsenite (NaAsO2) and Cadmium Chloride (CdCl2)], and organic [Benzo(a)Pyrene (BaP), PentaChloroPhenol (PCP), TetraChloroHydroQuinone (TCHQ), 1-Chloro-2,4-DiNitro-Benzene (CDNB)] compounds, specifically induced hGH release in the culture medium. Conclusions: MMH-GH, an innovative model to evaluate the toxic potential of chemical and physical xenobiotics, provides a simple biological system that may reduce the need for animal experimentation and/or continuously deriving fresh hepatocytes.
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