We have identified the liver-regulating protein (LRP), a cell surface protein involved in the maintenance of hepatocyte differentiation when cocultured with rat liver epithelial cells (RLEC). LRP was defined by immunoreactivity to a monoclonal antibody (mAb L8) prepared from RLEC. mAb L8 specifically detected two polypeptides of 85 and 73 kD in immunoprecipitation of both hepatocyte- and RLEC-iodinated plasma membranes. The involvement of these polypeptides, which are integral membrane proteins, in cell interaction-mediated regulation of hepatocytes was assessed by evaluating the perturbing effects of the antibody on cocultures with RLEC. Several parameters characteristic of differentiated hepatocytes were studied, such as liver-specific and house-keeping gene expression, cytoskeletal organization and deposition of extracellular matrix (ECM). An early cytoskeletal disturbance was evidenced and a marked alteration of hepatocyte functional capacity was observed in the presence of the antibody, together with a loss of ECM deposition. By contrast, cell-cell aggregation or cell adhesion to various extracellular matrix components were not affected. These findings suggest that LRP is distinct from an extracellular matrix receptor. The fact that early addition of mAb L8 during cell contact establishment was necessary to be effective may indicate that LRP is a novel plasma membrane protein that plays an early pivotal role in the coordinated metabolic changes which lead to the differentiated phenotype of mature hepatocytes.

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