While fetal liver is a major hematopoietic organ, normal adult liver provides a suitable microenvironment for a variety of immune cells and, in several pathological conditions, may become a site of extramedullary hematopoiesis. The direct influence of hepatocytes on hematopoietic cell differentiation is poorly understood. We have previously reported that the Met murine hepatocyte (MMH) untransformed hepatocytic lines retain several morphological and functional features of hepatocytes in vivo and are able to support the survival, self-renewal, and differentiation of hematopoietic precursors in a cell-cell contact system. Here we report the effects of soluble factors released by MMH lines on bone marrow-derived cells. Lymphohematopoietic cells were cultured in two different cell contact-free systems: transwell inserts on MMH feeder layers, and MMH conditioned medium (MMH-CM). Both culture systems were able to promote a substantial expansion of bone marrow-derived cells and their differentiation to natural killer (NK) cells that express the NK1.1 and U5A2-13 markers. Purified hematopoietic stem cells (Sca-1+Lin-), either plated as a bulk population or as single cells, were also able to differentiate into NK cells, when cultured in MMH-CM; thus, soluble factors secreted by MMH lines promote the expansion and differentiation of NK precursor cells. MMH-CM-derived NK cells are functionally active; stimulation by interleukin (IL)-12 together with IL-18 was required to induce interferon-gamma (IFNγ) expression and to enhance their cytotoxic activity. In conclusion, our findings may imply a direct role of hepatocytes in NK cell development, and the system we have used may provide a tool for studying the molecular mechanisms of NK cell differentiation.
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