Research Papers:

Characterization of the inflammatory microenvironment and hepatic macrophage subsets in experimental hepatocellular carcinoma models

Helena Degroote _, Sander Lefere, Astrid Vandierendonck, Bart Vanderborght, Tim Meese, Filip Van Nieuwerburgh, Xavier Verhelst, Anja Geerts, Hans Van Vlierberghe and Lindsey Devisscher

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Oncotarget. 2021; 12:562-577. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.27906

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Helena Degroote1,2, Sander Lefere1,2, Astrid Vandierendonck1, Bart Vanderborght1,2, Tim Meese3, Filip Van Nieuwerburgh3, Xavier Verhelst1, Anja Geerts1, Hans Van Vlierberghe1 and Lindsey Devisscher2

1 Hepatology Research Unit, Department of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics, Liver Research Center Ghent, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

2 Gut-Liver Immunopharmacology Unit, Department of Basic and Applied Medical Sciences, Liver Research Center Ghent, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

3 Laboratory of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, Department of Pharmaceutics, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

Correspondence to:

Lindsey Devisscher,email: [email protected]

Keywords: hepatocellular carcinoma; macrophage subsets; tumor microenvironment; tumor associated macrophages; inflammation

Received: October 14, 2020     Accepted: February 15, 2021     Published: March 16, 2021

Copyright: © 2021 Degroote et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 3.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the leading causes of cancer-related death worldwide. HCC typically develops on a background of chronic inflammation and fibrosis with tumor associated macrophages (TAMs) playing an important role in chronic inflammation-induced HCC and progression. However, the liver harbors unique macrophages, resident liver Kupffer cells (KCs) and monocyte-derived macrophages (Mo-Mφ), and their contribution to HCC and to the population of TAMs is incompletely known. Here, we characterized the tumor microenvironment and the proportion and transcriptional profile of hepatic macrophages (Mφ) in two commonly used HCC mouse models. A gradually increased expression of inflammatory, immune regulatory, fibrotic and cell proliferation pathways and markers was observed during diethylnitrosamine (DEN)- and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)-induced HCC development. The transcriptional phenotypes of isolated hepatic Mφ subsets were clearly distinct and shifted during HCC development, with mixed pro-inflammatory and tumor-promoting expression profiles. There were marked differences between the models as well, with Mφ in NASH-HCC exhibiting a more immunomodulatory phenotype, in conjunction with an upregulation of lipid metabolism genes. Our data show that at least some infiltrated macrophages display expression of pro-tumoral markers, and that Kupffer cells are part of the population of TAMs and enhance tumor progression. These insights are useful to further unravel sequential pathogenic events during hepatocarcinogenesis and direct future development of new treatment strategies for HCC.

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