Research Focus

Tissue maintenance and repair depend on the ability of cells to respond to internal and external cues, proliferate and differentiate into functional components. Aberrant regulation of this response results in disease; hyperproliferation and cancer or tissue degeneration and scar formation. In the Huch lab we exploit both the liver, as a model of extensive regenerative capacity and the pancreas, which exhibits very little regeneration potential, to unveil the biological processes that control adult tissue homeostasis and repair and their deregulation in disease. 

Our experimental strategy involves the combined use of: (1) animal models and (2) in vitro mouse and human organoid models that recapitulate key aspects of mouse and human liver development, proliferation and regeneration in culture, in a controlled environment. 

We take the following approaches:

  1. We study the different subpopulations of liver progenitors during early liver development
  2. We investigate the niche-progenitor relationship during regeneration and in disease
  3. We analyse the epigenetic mechanisms involved in the transition from a differentiated cell to an activated progenitor and from a progenitor to a differentiated cell
  4. We study the cellular heterogeneity and cellular interactions in human cancer 

Our long-term goal is to understand the principles that govern proliferation and differentiation of adult organs and tissues to gain the knowledge required to further develop our organoid cultures and potentially recapitulate organogenesis in vitro.

The Huch Lab always welcomes applications of exceptional and highly motivated Postdoctoral Scientists.
If you are interested, contact huch(at)mpi-cbg.de.

Selected Publications

* joined first author # joined corresponding author

Lucía Cordero-Espinoza✳︎, Anna Dowbaj✳︎, Timo N Kohler, Bernhard Strauss, Olga Sarlidou, German Belenguer, Clare Pacini, Nuno P Martins, Ross Dobie, John R Wilson-Kanamori, Richard Butler, Nicole Prior, Palle Serup, Florian Jug, Neil C Henderson, Florian Hollfelder, Meritxell Huch
Dynamic cell contacts between periportal mesenchyme and ductal epithelium act as a rheostat for liver cell proliferation.
Cell Stem Cell, 28(11) 1907-1921 (2021)
Open Access DOI
In the liver, ductal cells rarely proliferate during homeostasis but do so transiently after tissue injury. These cells can be expanded as organoids that recapitulate several of the cell-autonomous mechanisms of regeneration but lack the stromal interactions of the native tissue. Here, using organoid co-cultures that recapitulate the ductal-to-mesenchymal cell architecture of the portal tract, we demonstrate that a subpopulation of mouse periportal mesenchymal cells exerts dual control on proliferation of the epithelium. Ductal cell proliferation is either induced and sustained or, conversely, completely abolished, depending on the number of direct mesenchymal cell contacts, through a mechanism mediated, at least in part, by Notch signaling. Our findings expand the concept of the cellular niche in epithelial tissues, whereby not only soluble factors but also cell-cell contacts are the key regulatory cues involved in the control of cellular behaviors, suggesting a critical role for cell-cell contacts during regeneration.


Nikitas Georgakopoulos, Nicole Prior, Brigitte Angres, Gianmarco Mastrogiovanni, Alex Cagan, Daisy Harrison, Christopher J Hindley, Robert Arnes-Benito, Siong-Seng Liau, Abbie Curd, Natasha Ivory, Benjamin D Simons, Inigo Martincorena, Helmut Wurst, Kourosh Saeb-Parsy, Meritxell Huch
Long-term expansion, genomic stability and in vivo safety of adult human pancreas organoids.
BMC Dev Biol, 20(1) Art. No. 4 (2020)
Open Access DOI
Pancreatic organoid systems have recently been described for the in vitro culture of pancreatic ductal cells from mouse and human. Mouse pancreatic organoids exhibit unlimited expansion potential, while previously reported human pancreas organoid (hPO) cultures do not expand efficiently long-term in a chemically defined, serum-free medium. We sought to generate a 3D culture system for long-term expansion of human pancreas ductal cells as hPOs to serve as the basis for studies of human pancreas ductal epithelium, exocrine pancreatic diseases and the development of a genomically stable replacement cell therapy for diabetes mellitus.


Luigi Aloia, Mikel Alexander McKie, Grégoire Vernaz, Lucía Cordero-Espinoza, Niya Aleksieva, Jelle van den Ameele, Francesco Antonica, Berta Font-Cunill, Alexander Raven, Riccardo Aiese Cigliano, German Belenguer, Richard Lester Mort, Andrea H Brand, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Stuart J Forbes, Eric A Miska, Meritxell Huch
Epigenetic remodelling licences adult cholangiocytes for organoid formation and liver regeneration.
Nat Cell Biol, 21(11) 1321-1333 (2019)
DOI
Following severe or chronic liver injury, adult ductal cells (cholangiocytes) contribute to regeneration by restoring both hepatocytes and cholangiocytes. We recently showed that ductal cells clonally expand as self-renewing liver organoids that retain their differentiation capacity into both hepatocytes and ductal cells. However, the molecular mechanisms by which adult ductal-committed cells acquire cellular plasticity, initiate organoids and regenerate the damaged tissue remain largely unknown. Here, we describe that ductal cells undergo a transient, genome-wide, remodelling of their transcriptome and epigenome during organoid initiation and in vivo following tissue damage. TET1-mediated hydroxymethylation licences differentiated ductal cells to initiate organoids and activate the regenerative programme through the transcriptional regulation of stem-cell genes and regenerative pathways including the YAP-Hippo signalling. Our results argue in favour of the remodelling of genomic methylome/hydroxymethylome landscapes as a general mechanism by which differentiated cells exit a committed state in response to tissue damage.


Nicole Prior, Christopher J Hindley, Fabian Rost, Elena Meléndez, Winnie W Y Lau, Berthold Göttgens, Steffen Rulands, Benjamin D Simons, Meritxell Huch
Lgr5+ stem and progenitor cells reside at the apex of a heterogeneous embryonic hepatoblast pool.
Development, 146(12) Art. No. dev174557 (2019)
Open Access DOI
During mouse embryogenesis, progenitors within the liver known as hepatoblasts give rise to adult hepatocytes and cholangiocytes. Hepatoblasts, which are specified at E8.5-E9.0, have been regarded as a homogeneous progenitor population that initiate differentiation from E13.5. Recently, scRNA-seq analysis has identified sub-populations of transcriptionally distinct hepatoblasts at E11.5. Here, we show that hepatoblasts are not only transcriptionally but also functionally heterogeneous, and that a subpopulation of E9.5-E10.0 hepatoblasts exhibit a previously unidentified early commitment to cholangiocyte fate. Importantly, we also identify a subpopulation constituting 2% of E9.5-E10.0 hepatoblasts that express the adult stem cell marker Lgr5, and generate both hepatocyte and cholangiocyte progeny that persist for the lifespan of the mouse. Combining lineage tracing and scRNA-seq, we show that Lgr5 marks E9.5-E10.0 bipotent liver progenitors residing at the apex of a hepatoblast hierarchy. Furthermore, isolated Lgr5+ hepatoblasts can be clonally expanded in vitro into embryonic liver organoids, which can commit to either hepatocyte or cholangiocyte fates. Our study demonstrates functional heterogeneity within E9.5 hepatoblasts and identifies Lgr5 as a marker for a subpopulation of bipotent liver progenitors.


Laura Broutier, Gianmarco Mastrogiovanni, Monique Ma Verstegen, Hayley E Francies, Lena Morrill Gavarró, Charles R. Bradshaw, George E Allen, Robert Arnes-Benito, Olga Sidorova, Marcia P Gaspersz, Nikitas Georgakopoulos, Bon-Kyoung Koo, Sabine Dietmann, Susan E Davies, Raaj K Praseedom, Ruby Lieshout, Jan N M IJzermans, Stephen J Wigmore, Kourosh Saeb-Parsy, Mathew J Garnett, Luc J W van der Laan, Meritxell Huch
Human primary liver cancer-derived organoid cultures for disease modeling and drug screening.
Nat Med, 23(12) 1424-1435 (2017)
DOI
Human liver cancer research currently lacks in vitro models that can faithfully recapitulate the pathophysiology of the original tumor. We recently described a novel, near-physiological organoid culture system, wherein primary human healthy liver cells form long-term expanding organoids that retain liver tissue function and genetic stability. Here we extend this culture system to the propagation of primary liver cancer (PLC) organoids from three of the most common PLC subtypes: hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), cholangiocarcinoma (CC) and combined HCC/CC (CHC) tumors. PLC-derived organoid cultures preserve the histological architecture, gene expression and genomic landscape of the original tumor, allowing for discrimination between different tumor tissues and subtypes, even after long-term expansion in culture in the same medium conditions. Xenograft studies demonstrate that the tumorogenic potential, histological features and metastatic properties of PLC-derived organoids are preserved in vivo. PLC-derived organoids are amenable for biomarker identification and drug-screening testing and led to the identification of the ERK inhibitor SCH772984 as a potential therapeutic agent for primary liver cancer. We thus demonstrate the wide-ranging biomedical utilities of PLC-derived organoid models in furthering the understanding of liver cancer biology and in developing personalized-medicine approaches for the disease.


Laura Broutier, Amanda Andersson-Rolf, Christopher J Hindley, Sylvia F Boj, Hans Clevers, Bon-Kyoung Koo, Meritxell Huch
Culture and establishment of self-renewing human and mouse adult liver and pancreas 3D organoids and their genetic manipulation.
Nat Protoc, 11(9) 1724-1743 (2016)
DOI
Adult somatic tissues have proven difficult to expand in vitro, largely because of the complexity of recreating appropriate environmental signals in culture. We have overcome this problem recently and developed culture conditions for adult stem cells that allow the long-term expansion of adult primary tissues from small intestine, stomach, liver and pancreas into self-assembling 3D structures that we have termed 'organoids'. We provide a detailed protocol that describes how to grow adult mouse and human liver and pancreas organoids, from cell isolation and long-term expansion to genetic manipulation in vitro. Liver and pancreas cells grow in a gel-based extracellular matrix (ECM) and a defined medium. The cells can self-organize into organoids that self-renew in vitro while retaining their tissue-of-origin commitment, genetic stability and potential to differentiate into functional cells in vitro (hepatocytes) and in vivo (hepatocytes and endocrine cells). Genetic modification of these organoids opens up avenues for the manipulation of adult stem cells in vitro, which could facilitate the study of human biology and allow gene correction for regenerative medicine purposes. The complete protocol takes 1-4 weeks to generate self-renewing 3D organoids and to perform genetic manipulation experiments. Personnel with basic scientific training can conduct this protocol.


Meritxell Huch, Helmuth Gehart, Ruben van Boxtel, Karien Hamer, Francis Blokzijl, Monique Ma Verstegen, Ewa Ellis, Martien van Wenum, Sabine A Fuchs, Joep de Ligt, Marc van de Wetering, Nobuo Sasaki, Susanne J Boers, Hans Kemperman, Jeroen de Jonge, Jan N M Ijzermans, Edward E S Nieuwenhuis, Ruurdtje Hoekstra, Stephen Strom, Robert R G Vries, Luc J W van der Laan, Edwin Cuppen, Hans Clevers
Long-term culture of genome-stable bipotent stem cells from adult human liver.
Cell, 160(1-2) 299-312 (2015)
DOI
Despite the enormous replication potential of the human liver, there are currently no culture systems available that sustain hepatocyte replication and/or function in vitro. We have shown previously that single mouse Lgr5+ liver stem cells can be expanded as epithelial organoids in vitro and can be differentiated into functional hepatocytes in vitro and in vivo. We now describe conditions allowing long-term expansion of adult bile duct-derived bipotent progenitor cells from human liver. The expanded cells are highly stable at the chromosome and structural level, while single base changes occur at very low rates. The cells can readily be converted into functional hepatocytes in vitro and upon transplantation in vivo. Organoids from α1-antitrypsin deficiency and Alagille syndrome patients mirror the in vivo pathology. Clonal long-term expansion of primary adult liver stem cells opens up experimental avenues for disease modeling, toxicology studies, regenerative medicine, and gene therapy.


Meritxell Huch✳︎, Paola Bonfanti✳︎, Sylvia F Boj✳︎, Toshiro Sato✳︎, Cindy J M Loomans, Marc van de Wetering, Mozhdeh Sojoodi, Vivian S W Li, Jurian Schuijers, Ana Gracanin, Femke Ringnalda, Harry Begthel, Karien Hamer, Joyce Mulder, Johan H van Es, Eelco de Koning, Robert R G Vries, Harry Heimberg✳︎#, Hans Clevers✳︎#
Unlimited in vitro expansion of adult bi-potent pancreas progenitors through the Lgr5/R-spondin axis.
EMBO J, 32(20) 2708-2721 (2013)
Open Access DOI
Lgr5 marks adult stem cells in multiple adult organs and is a receptor for the Wnt-agonistic R-spondins (RSPOs). Intestinal, stomach and liver Lgr5(+) stem cells grow in 3D cultures to form ever-expanding organoids, which resemble the tissues of origin. Wnt signalling is inactive and Lgr5 is not expressed under physiological conditions in the adult pancreas. However, we now report that the Wnt pathway is robustly activated upon injury by partial duct ligation (PDL), concomitant with the appearance of Lgr5 expression in regenerating pancreatic ducts. In vitro, duct fragments from mouse pancreas initiate Lgr5 expression in RSPO1-based cultures, and develop into budding cyst-like structures (organoids) that expand five-fold weekly for >40 weeks. Single isolated duct cells can also be cultured into pancreatic organoids, containing Lgr5 stem/progenitor cells that can be clonally expanded. Clonal pancreas organoids can be induced to differentiate into duct as well as endocrine cells upon transplantation, thus proving their bi-potentiality.


Meritxell Huch, Craig Dorrell, Sylvia F Boj, Johan H van Es, Vivian S W Li, Marc van de Wetering, Toshiro Sato, Karien Hamer, Nobuo Sasaki, Milton J Finegold, Annelise Haft, Robert R G Vries, Markus Grompe, Hans Clevers
In vitro expansion of single Lgr5+ liver stem cells induced by Wnt-driven regeneration.
Nature, 494(7436) 247-250 (2013)
DOI
The Wnt target gene Lgr5 (leucine-rich-repeat-containing G-protein-coupled receptor 5) marks actively dividing stem cells in Wnt-driven, self-renewing tissues such as small intestine and colon, stomach and hair follicles. A three-dimensional culture system allows long-term clonal expansion of single Lgr5(+) stem cells into transplantable organoids (budding cysts) that retain many characteristics of the original epithelial architecture. A crucial component of the culture medium is the Wnt agonist RSPO1, the recently discovered ligand of LGR5. Here we show that Lgr5-lacZ is not expressed in healthy adult liver, however, small Lgr5-LacZ(+) cells appear near bile ducts upon damage, coinciding with robust activation of Wnt signalling. As shown by mouse lineage tracing using a new Lgr5-IRES-creERT2 knock-in allele, damage-induced Lgr5(+) cells generate hepatocytes and bile ducts in vivo. Single Lgr5(+) cells from damaged mouse liver can be clonally expanded as organoids in Rspo1-based culture medium over several months. Such clonal organoids can be induced to differentiate in vitro and to generate functional hepatocytes upon transplantation into Fah(-/-) mice. These findings indicate that previous observations concerning Lgr5(+) stem cells in actively self-renewing tissues can also be extended to damage-induced stem cells in a tissue with a low rate of spontaneous proliferation.