Nerve growth factor modulates the proliferative capacity of the intrahepatic biliary epithelium in experimental cholestasis.
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BACKGROUND & AIMS: We evaluated the expression of neurotrophins in rat cholangiocytes and the role and mechanisms by which nerve growth factor (NGF) modulates cholangiocyte proliferation. METHODS: The expression of neurotrophins and their receptors was investigated by immunohistochemistry in liver sections and reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction and immunoblots in isolated cholangiocytes. In vitro, the effect of NGF on cholangiocyte proliferation and signal transduction was investigated by immunoblotting for proliferating cell nuclear antigen, phosphorylated AKT (p-AKT), phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (p-ERK1/2), phosphorylated c-jun-N-terminal kinase, and phosphorylated p38. In vivo, rats that had undergone bile duct ligation (BDL) were treated with an anti-NGF antibody to immunoneutralize NGF and bile duct mass, proliferation, apoptosis, and inflammation were investigated by immunohistochemistry. RESULTS: NGF and its TrkA receptor were expressed by normal rat cholangiocytes and up-regulated following BDL. Cholangiocytes secrete NGF, and secretion is increased in proliferating BDL cholangiocytes. In vitro, NGF stimulated cholangiocyte proliferation, which was associated with enhanced p-AKT and p-ERK1/2 expression. NGF proliferation in vitro was partially blocked by the MEK inhibitor (UO126) and completely ablated by the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase inhibitor (wortmannin). In vitro, NGF and estrogens have an additive effect on cholangiocyte proliferation by acting on phosphorylated TrkA and p-ERK1/2. In vivo, immunoneutralization of NGF decreased bile duct mass in BDL rats, which was associated with depressed proliferation and enhanced apoptosis and with increased portal inflammation. CONCLUSIONS: Cholangiocytes secrete NGF and express NGF receptors. NGF induces cholangiocyte proliferation by activating the ERK and, predominantly, the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase pathway and exerts an additive effect in combination with estrogens on proliferation.