Pcsk9 knockout exacerbates diet-induced non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, fibrosis and liver injury in mice
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The fatty acid translocase, also known as CD36, is a well-established scavenger receptor for fatty acid (FA) uptake and is abundantly expressed in many metabolically active tissues. In the liver, CD36 is known to contribute to the progression of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and to the more severe non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, by promoting triglyceride accumulation and subsequent lipid-induced endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress. Given the recent discovery that the hepatocyte-secreted proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9) blocks CD36 expression, we sought to investigate the role of PCSK9 in liver fat accumulation and injury in response to saturated FAs and in a mouse model of diet-induced hepatic steatosis. Methods: In this study, we investigated the role of PCSK9 on the uptake and accumulation of FAs, as well as FA-induced toxicity, in a variety of cultured hepatocytes. Diet-induced hepatic steatosis and liver injury were also assessed in Pcsk9 -/- mice. Results: Our results indicate that PCSK9 deficiency in cultured hepatocytes increased the uptake and accumulation of saturated and unsaturated FAs. In the presence of saturated FAs, PCSK9 also protected cultured hepatocytes from ER stress and cytotoxicity. In line with these findings, a metabolic challenge using a high-fat diet caused severe hepatic steatosis, ER stress inflammation and fibrosis in the livers of Pcsk9 -/- mice compared to controls. Given that inhibition of CD36 ablated the observed accumulation of lipid in vitro and in vivo, our findings also highlight CD36 as a strong contributor to steatosis and liver injury in the context of PCSK9 deficiency. Conclusions: Collectively, our findings demonstrate that PCSK9 regulates hepatic triglyceride content in a manner dependent on CD36. In the presence of excess dietary fats, PCSK9 can also protect against hepatic steatosis and liver injury. Lay summary: The proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9) is a circulating protein known to reduce the abundance of receptors on the surface of liver cells charged with the task of lipid uptake from the circulation. Although PCSK9 deficiency is known to cause lipid accumulation in mice and in cultured cells, the toxicological implications of this observation have not yet been reported. In this study, we demonstrate that PCSK9 can protect against cytotoxicity in cultured liver cells treated with a saturated fatty acid and we also show that Pcsk9 knockout mice develop increased liver injury in response to a high-fat diet.