Holger Willenbring, MD

Core

Complex differentiation and facultative regenerative abilities are hallmarks of hepatocytes, the cells of the liver that provide its manifold functions. We are interested in identifying key regulators of these programs in order to direct the functional differentiation of immature cells from abundant cell sources which could then be used for therapy of diseases impairing hepatocyte function. In addition, this knowledge may provide a means to restore or unlock the functional and regenerative capabilities of ailing hepatocytes or other differentiated cell types, respectively. Hepatocytes derive from liver progenitors which expand and commit to one of two possible cell fates during late embryonic development. We aim to obtain a detailed understanding of these processes which we believe is essential for their recapitulation in cells intended for transplantation.

Intriguingly, hepatocyte progenitor cell characteristics could explain why liver cancers are refractory to therapy and we are therefore interested in identifying and isolating the cells that give rise to liver cancer. The ability to track the emergence and development of these cells in vivo will facilitate specific analyses of the molecular mechanisms involved in liver cancer formation. Understanding the biology of liver cancer initiation would potentially enable early detection and effective eradication.