Recent studies have suggested that proliferating cholangiocytes have an important role in the induction of fibrosis, either directly via epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), or indirectly via activation of other liver cell types. Transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-β1), a critical fibrotic cytokine for hepatic fibrosis, is a potent EMT inducer. This study aimed to clarify the potential contributions of TGF-β1-induced EMT-like cholangiocyte phenotype to collagen production and cell survival of cholangiocytes in vitro. Mouse cholangiocytes (603B cells) were treated with TGF-β1 and EMT-like phenotype alterations were monitored by morphological changes and expression of EMT-associated genes. Alterations in Col1A1 gene, Col1A1-associated miR-29s, and pro-apoptotic genes were measured in TGF-β1-treated 603B cells. Snail1 knockdown was achieved using shRNA to evaluate the contribution of EMT-associated changes to Col1A1 production and cell survival. We found TGF-β1 treatment induced partial EMT-like phenotype transition in 603B cells in a Snail1-dependent manner. TGF-β1 also stimulated collagen α1(I) expression in 603B cells. However, this induction was not parallel to the EMT-like alterations and independent of Snail1 or miR-29 expression. Cells undergoing EMT-like changes showed a modest down-regulation of multiple pro-apoptotic genes and displayed resistance to TNF-α-induced apoptosis. TGF-β1-induced apoptosis resistance was attenuated in Snail1 knockdown 603B cells. TGF-β1-induced Col1A1 production seems to be independent of EMT-like transition and miR-29 expression. Nevertheless, TGF-β1-induced EMT may contribute to the increased survival capacity of cholangiocytes via modulating the expression of pro-apoptotic genes.
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