It was examined whether hepatocyte cell lines can be used for ammonia removal in mammalian cell cultures. It was found that there exists a critical ammonium concentration level for each hepatocyte cell to remove ammonia. Among the cells tested in this work, primary hepatocytes showed the strongest ammonia removal capability if ammonium concentration is higher than the critical level. However, primary hepatocytes lost the liver function gradually and finally died after 2-3 weeks. Because of this limitation, primary hepatocytes were not appropriate to be used for ammonia removal in long-term cultures. Hep G2 cells, which are immortal, also showed a strong ammonia removal activity. The ammonia removal activity of Hep G2 cells depended on the concentration of ammonium in the medium, as in the case of primary hepatocytes. However, urea could not be detected in the course of ammonia removal by Hep G2 cells. Instead of urea, Hep G2 cells secreted glutamine into the culture medium. The capacity for ammonia removal was higher in the absence than in the presence of glutamine. Thus we checked the activity of glutamine synthetase in the Hep G2 cells. The level of glutamine synthetase activity increased with the addition of ammonium chloride. This result accounts for the ammonium concentration dependency of Hep G2 cells in ammonia removal and glutamine synthesis. Furthermore Hep G2 cells could grow well in the absence of glutamine, which was necessarily required in mammalian cell cultures. These results prove that glutamine formation serves as the primary mechanism of detoxifying ammonia in hepatocyte cell lines as expected. In addition, it was demonstrated that ammonium level could be reduced 38% and that erythropoietin production increased 2-fold in the mixed culture of Hep G2 and recombinant CHO cells.
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