Frequently, primary hepatocytes are used as an in vitro model for the liver in vivo. However, the culture conditions reported vary considerably, with associated variability in performance. In this study, we characterized the differentiation character of primary human hepatocytes cultured using a highly defined, serum-free two-dimensional sandwich system, one that configures hepatocytes with collagen I as the substratum together with a dilute extracellular matrix (Matrigel™) overlay combined with a defined serum-free medium containing nanomolar levels of dexamethasone. Gap junctional communication, indicated by immunochemical detection of connexin 32 protein, was markedly enhanced in hepatocytes cultured in the Matrigel sandwich configuration. Whole genome expression profiling enabled direct comparison of liver tissues to hepatocytes and to the hepatoma-derived cell lines, HepG2 and Huh7. PANTHER database analyses were used to identify biological processes that were comparatively over-represented among probe sets expressed in the in vitro systems. The robustness of the primary hepatocyte cultures was reflected by the extent of unchanged expression character when compared directly to liver, with more than 77% of the probe sets unchanged in each of the over-represented categories, representing such genes as C/EBPα, HNF4α, CYP2D6, and ABCB1. In contrast, HepG2 and Huh7 cells were unchanged from the liver tissues for fewer than 48% and 55% of these probe sets, respectively. Further, hierarchical clustering of the hepatocytes, but not the cell lines, shifted from donor-specific to treatment-specific when the probe sets were filtered to focus on phenobarbital-inducible genes, indicative of the highly differentiated nature of the hepatocytes when cultured in a highly defined two-dimensional sandwich system.
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