A protein linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Low levels of a protein called MBOAT7, which are observed in people with obesity, lead to the accumulation of fat in the liver, contributing to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
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Liver showing damage from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The liver cells are shown in red with fat deposits in white. Image credit: Nephron (CC BY 3.0)

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD for short, is a medical condition that develops when the liver accumulates excess fat. It can lead to complications such as diabetes and liver scarring. In humans, mutations that inactivate a protein called MBOAT7 increase the risk of fat accumulating in the liver.

Genetic studies suggest that low levels of MBOAT7 in a human’s liver cells increase the severity of NAFLD. Yet the links between MBOAT7, NAFLD and obesity are not well understood. Helsley et al. used data from humans and from obese mice that had been fed a high-fat diet to investigate the relationship between NAFLD and MBOAT7. This revealed that people who are obese have lower levels of MBOAT7 in their livers. Next, obese mice were genetically manipulated to produce less MBOAT7, which led them to develop more severe NAFLD.

Helsley et al. then grew human liver cells in the laboratory and lowered their levels of MBOAT7, which led to excess fat accumulating in the cells. This increase in fat accumulation was, at least in part, due to how these cells metabolize fats when MBOAT7 is reduced: they start making more new fats and consume fewer lipids to produce energy.

These findings provide a link between obesity and liver damage in both humans and mice, and show how a decrease in MBOAT7 levels causes changes in fat metabolism that could lead to NAFLD. The results could drive new approaches to treating liver damage in patients with mutations in the gene that codes for MBOAT7.