Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Three-dimensional reconstructions of intrahepatic bile duct tubulogenesis in human liver

Peter S Vestentoft1, Peter Jelnes1, Branden M Hopkinson1, Ben Vainer3, Kjeld Møllgård1, Bjørn Quistorff2 and Hanne C Bisgaard1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen, The Panum Institute, Blegdamsvej 3B, DK-2200 Copenhagen N, Denmark

2 Department of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen, The Panum Institute, Blegdamsvej 3B, DK-2200 Copenhagen N, Denmark

3 Department of Pathology, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen University Hospital, Blegdamsvej 9, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Developmental Biology 2011, 11:56  doi:10.1186/1471-213X-11-56

Published: 26 September 2011



During liver development, intrahepatic bile ducts are thought to arise by a unique asymmetric mode of cholangiocyte tubulogenesis characterized by a series of remodeling stages. Moreover, in liver diseases, cells lining the Canals of Hering can proliferate and generate new hepatic tissue. The aim of this study was to develop protocols for three-dimensional visualization of protein expression, hepatic portal structures and human hepatic cholangiocyte tubulogenesis.


Protocols were developed to digitally visualize portal vessel branching and protein expression of hepatic cell lineage and extracellular matrix deposition markers in three dimensions. Samples from human prenatal livers ranging from 7 weeks + 2 days to 15½ weeks post conception as well as adult normal and acetaminophen intoxicated liver were used. The markers included cytokeratins (CK) 7 and 19, the epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM), hepatocyte paraffin 1 (HepPar1), sex determining region Y (SRY)-box 9 (SOX9), laminin, nestin, and aquaporin 1 (AQP1).

Digital three-dimensional reconstructions using CK19 as a single marker protein disclosed a fine network of CK19 positive cells in the biliary tree in normal liver and in the extensive ductular reactions originating from intrahepatic bile ducts and branching into the parenchyma of the acetaminophen intoxicated liver. In the developing human liver, three-dimensional reconstructions using multiple marker proteins confirmed that the human intrahepatic biliary tree forms through several developmental stages involving an initial transition of primitive hepatocytes into cholangiocytes shaping the ductal plate followed by a process of maturation and remodeling where the intrahepatic biliary tree develops through an asymmetrical form of cholangiocyte tubulogenesis.


The developed protocols provide a novel and sophisticated three-dimensional visualization of vessels and protein expression in human liver during development and disease.