We have examined the cell-specific expression of two fibronectin isoforms, EIIIA and EIIIB, during experimental hepatic fibrosis induced by ligation of the biliary duct. AT the mRNA level, EIIIA and EIIIB were undetectable in normal liver but expressed early injury, preceding fibrosis. The cellular sources of these changes were determined by fractionating the liver at various time points after bile duct ligation into its constituent cell populations and extracting RNA from the fresh isolates. EIIIA-containing fibronectin mRNA was undetectable in normal sinusoidal endothelial cells but increased rapidly within 12 h of injury. By contrast, the EIIIB form was restricted to hepatic lipocytes (Ito or fat-storing cells) and appeared only after a lag of 12-24 h: it was minimal in sinusoidal endothelial cells. Both forms were minimal in hepatocytes. At the protein level, EIIIA-containing fibronectin was markedly increased within two days of injury and exhibited a sinusoidal distribution. Secretion of this form by endothelial cells was confirmed in primary culture. Matrices deposited in situ by endothelial cells from injured liver accelerated the conversion ("activation") of normal lipocytes to myofibroblast-like cells, and pretreatment of matrices with monoclonal antibody to the EIIIA segment blocked this response. Finally, recombinant fibronectin peptide containing the EIIIA segment was stimulatory to lipocytes in culture. We conclude that expression of EIIIA fibronectin by sinusoidal endothelial cells is a critical early event in the liver's response to injury and that the EIIIA segment is biologically active, mediating the conversion of lipocytes to myofibroblasts.

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