Putting the stress on fatty liver disease

A treatment that mimics a fat-burning stress hormone prevents obesity and inflammatory liver disease in mice fed a high-fat diet.

Pizza on a plate. Image credit: Thomas Tucker (CC0)

High-calorie modern diets have contributed to growing rates of obesity-linked diseases. One such disease is non-alcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH for short, which affects about 5% of adults in the United States. The livers of people with this condition accumulate fat, become inflamed, and develop scar tissue. People with NASH are also at increased risk of developing liver cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Currently, no drugs are available to treat the condition and prevent such severe complications.

Previous research has shown the liver produces a stress hormone, called FGF21, in response to fat accumulation. This hormone boosts fat burning and so helps to reduce excess fat in the liver. Drugs that mimic FGF21 have already been developed for type 2 diabetes. But so far, it was unclear if such drugs could also help reduce liver inflammation and scarring in patients with NASH.

Liu et al. show that increasing the production of FGF21 in mice with a NASH-like condition reduces fat accumulation, liver inflammation, and scarring. In the experiments, the researchers used gene therapy to ramp up FGF21 production in the livers of mice that develop obesity and a NASH-like condition when fed a high-fat diet for 23 weeks. Increasing FGF21 production prevented the mice from developing obesity while on the high fat diet by making the body burn more fat in the liver and brown fat tissue. The treatment also reduced inflammation and prevented scarring by reducing the number and activity of immune cells in the liver.

Increasing the production of the stress hormone FGF21 prevents diet-induced obesity and NASH in mice fed a high-fat diet. More studies are necessary to determine if using gene therapy to increase FGF21 may also cause weight loss and could reverse liver damage in mice that already have NASH. If this approach is effective in mice, it may be tested in humans, a process that may take several years. If human studies are successful, FGF21-boosting therapy might provide a new treatment approach for obesity or NASH.