LiverSafe 3D is a powerful new in vitro hepatotoxicity assay system that goes a step beyond the current commercially available gold standard primary (cadaver) hepatocyte assay. By combining the flexibility of an in vitro, non-transformed human cell-based assay system with the renewable, reproducible sourcing of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs), VSTA-heps™, which are the functional hPSC-derived human hepatocytes (liver cells) we produce for our LiverSafe 3D assay system, can be maintained in a healthy state for much longer than primary (cadaver) hepatocytes used in FDA-required in vitro drug metabolism assays, greatly enhancing the reliability of hepatotoxicity testing for our drug rescue programs. As shown below, commercially-available primary (cadaver) hepatocytes are not optimal for in vitro liver safety screening.
Until now, reliable human cell-based hepatotoxicity screening platforms have been difficult to establish for high throughput drug development with currently available primary (cadaver) hepatocyte systems. Primary hepatocytes have a short lifespan in culture, during which time they rapidly lose their drug metabolizing capabilities and develop signs of cellular stress. Furthermore, these commercially available primary hepatocytes have significant batch-to-batch genetic variation that alters the function of drug metabolism genes and their critical enzyme activity levels due to the use of hepatocytes from different sources. Additionally, primary hepatocytes are derived from individuals with significant differences in health status, with unknown effects on hepatocyte function. Consequently, it is difficult to maintain quantitative reproducibility using currently available primary hepatocyte assays, and this leads to limitations in the quality and clinical predictivity of the results and conclusions drawn from these assays.
The foregoing limitations have led many in the field to believe that hPSC-derived hepatocyte assays offer a better alternative to the current gold standard primary hepatocyte assays. This belief is mainly due to the fact that hepatocytes derived from the same hPSC line are genetically identical, normal, non-transformed (that is, not tumor-derived) human cells derived from hPSCs. Importantly, hPSC-derived hepatocytes such as our VSTA-heps can be indefinitely propagated and frozen down into large, uniform, quality-controlled cell banks. The challenge to using hPSC-derived hepatocytes has been differentiating the stem cells into mature hepatocytes that express a full complement of functional drug metabolizing enzymes, nuclear receptors, and transporters at least as well as primary hepatocytes. While many groups have taken on this challenge in recent years, published reports indicate that current hPSC differentiation protocols yield immature hepatocytes, especially with respect to extremely low expression of certain key drug metabolizing enzymes, such as CYP3A4. CYP3A4 is a critical liver enzyme responsible for metabolizing approximately 50% of the FDA-approved drugs currently available on the market. It is an important and well-accepted functional gene found almost exclusively in mature, adult hepatocytes. CYP3A4 is the key functional marker that we have used to optimize our hepatocyte differentiation cultures for LiverSafe 3D. We believe our optimized LiverSafe 3D assay system enables us to generate more mature hPSC-derived hepatocytes than are currently available from others in the field and that our LiverSafe 3D system provides the unique ability to specifically select for mature CYP3A4-expressing human hepatocytes.
We produce VSTA-heps using proprietary hPSC differentiation protocols adapted from the laboratory of our co-founder, Dr. Gordon Keller, and our proprietary hPSC cell line, 3A4BLA. This 3A4BLA cell line is a human embryonic stem cell (hESC) line that contains a humanized BLA functional “reporter” that targets the CYP3A4 gene in a manner tresulting in the expression of BLA only in cells that also express CYP3A4. This allows us to visualize by fluorescence cells that express CYP3A4 based on expression of the BLA reporter. By producing a cell line capable of tracking CYP3A4 expression, we have been able to optimize our hPSC differentiation protocols to increase expression of mature hepatocyte markers and drug metabolizing enzymes and to enrich for CYP3A4-expressing cells by cell sorting. However, even in the absence of cell sorting, our VSTA-hep populations contain greater than 80% ALBUMIN-positive cells and greater than 40% CYP3A4-positive cells, with CYP3A4 mRNA expression reaching levels nearly 60-fold higher than side-by-side 38-week human fetal liver controls. Our VSTA-heps secrete urea and ALBUMIN at levels that exceed commercially-available primary hepatocytes, and they also store both glycogen and lipids, characteristics that are required of functional, mature adult hepatocytes. Importantly, expression of fetal liver markers decreases over the time course of differentiation of our LiverSafe 3D hepatocytes. This decreased expression is expected and essential during maturation of hepatocytes, but it has rarely been reported by others in publications describing their hPSC-derived hepatocytes. With the addition of cell sorting, our VSTA-heps can be highly enriched for CYP3A4-BLA-positive cells, with CYP3A4 message in the positive cell population reaching greater than 30% that of an adult human liver pool control. To our knowledge, this level of CYP3A4 expression exceeds levels reported by others in the literature.
The most important capabilities of our VSTA-heps relate to “Phase I” and “Phase II” drug metabolism, which are functional characteristics of mature adult hepatocytes. We have validated these capabilities of our VSTA-heps by demonstrating theri ability to metabolize known substrates, such as testosterone, and its ability to respond properly to known inducers of Phase I-mediated CYP3A4 metabolism, such as rifampicin. Moreover, our VSTA-heps demonstrate Phase II-mediated testosterone metabolism levels that exceed commercially available primary hepatocytes. These functional characteristics of mature adult hepatocytes are critical to the customized development of LiverSafe 3D as a reliable and clinically predictive hepatotoxicity screening platform for our drug rescue and development programs. We are currently focused on expanding our panel of validation assays and compounds to include more P450 substrates, inducers, and inhibitors, as well as adapting the cellular toxicity assays that have been developed for our CardioSafe 3D assay system to our LiverSafe 3D assay system and to apply specific hepatotoxic screening assays, such as ALBUMIN and urea secretion assays.
We believe LiverSafe 3D with VSTA-heps is a powerful, genetically identical, renewable, and reproducible hepatotoxicity assay system for drug rescue and development that provides great advantages over currently available primary hepatocyte assays. We have demonstrated that our VSTA-heps, even in the absence of cell sorting, secrete adult hepatocyte levels of ALBUMIN and urea and contain greater than 40% CYP3A4-positive cells, historically difficult to achieve in hPSC differentiation cultures. The proprietary 3A4BLA cell line component of LiverSafe 3D allows us the unique opportunity to enrich CYP3A4-positive cells, resulting in CYP3A4 expression reaching greater than 30% of an adult human liver pool, and to the best of our knowledge, a level higher than described in current literature. Most importantly for drug rescue and development purposes, our VSTA-heps metabolize known substrates and respond to known inducers in a manner expected only of mature adult hepatocytes, paving the way for our final validation of LiverSafe 3D system as a novel hepatotoxicity assay system that can improve clinical predictivity, decrease the cost of drug rescue and development, reduce use of live animal studies, and improve drug safety.