Hepatocytes are specialized cells found in the liver; “hepato-” means “pertaining to the liver” and a “-cyte” is a cell. These cells are among the body's most impressive multi-taskers, performing a number of tasks related to liver function. They are a form of epithelial tissue, the tissue that lines and covers the body from toes to nose. Most tumors involving the liver grow in hepatocytes, such as hepatocellular carcinoma.
Around 60-80% of the mass of the liver at any given time is made up of hepatocytes. These cells have a polygonal plate-like shape and are found stacked on top of each other in layers. Contact with neighboring cells facilitates certain functions performed by hepatocytes. These cells can also be grown in culture for research purposes, where they also form long chains and layers as they connect with each other. Laboratories that produce hepatocytes provide cells from a number of species in both fresh and frozen form to meet various research needs.
One important function hepatocytes are responsible for is protein synthesis and storage. These cells produce and store a wide range of proteins for use by the body. In addition, they metabolize carbohydrates and lipids ingested by the body. Another function of the hepatocytes is to make and secrete bile. Bile leaves the liver along the bile duct and plays a role in digestion.
The liver has another key role in the body. It is the body's filtration system, processing compounds people ingest to break them into usable components and express wastes. The kidneys also play a role in helping the body metabolize things like medications. In the case of the liver, the hepatocytes are designed to trap and neutralize toxins before they enter the rest of the body and cause harm. This includes toxins people ingest voluntarily, ranging from recreational drugs to pharmaceutical compounds that people take to address disease.
Like other cells, hepatocytes can turn cancerous. The liver is designed to regrow in the event of damage, and these cells can be triggered into overdrive. A single cell with rogue DNA that manages to evade the body's system for identifying and killing damaged cells can replicate, leading to the development of a mass in the liver. Over time, the mass will impair liver function and eventually cause the organ to fail. People with a history of liver scarring, known as cirrhosis, are at increased risk for developing liver cancer.