Background & Aims: Histological assessment of liver biopsies is the gold standard for diagnosis of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), the progressive form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), despite its well-established limitations. Therefore, non-invasive biomarkers that can offer an integrated view of the liver are needed to improve diagnosis and reduce sampling bias. Hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) are central in the development of hepatic fibrosis, a hallmark of NASH. Secreted HSC-specific proteins may, therefore, reflect disease state in the NASH liver and serve as non-invasive diagnostic biomarkers. Methods: We performed RNA-sequencing on liver biopsies from a histologically characterised cohort of obese patients (n = 30, BMI >35 kg/m2) to identify and evaluate HSC-specific genes encoding secreted proteins. Bioinformatics was used to identify potential biomarkers and their expression at single-cell resolution. We validated our findings using single-molecule fluorescence in situ hybridisation (smFISH) and ELISA to detect mRNA in liver tissue and protein levels in plasma, respectively. Results: Hepatic expression of SPARC-related modular calcium-binding protein 2 (SMOC2) was increased in NASH compared to no-NAFLD (p.adj <0.001). Single-cell RNA-sequencing data indicated that SMOC2 was primarily expressed by HSCs, which was validated using smFISH. Finally, plasma SMOC2 was elevated in NASH compared to no-NAFLD (p <0.001), with a predictive accuracy of AUROC 0.88. Conclusions: Increased SMOC2 in plasma appears to reflect HSC activation, a key cellular event associated with NASH progression, and may serve as a non-invasive biomarker of NASH. Impact and implications: Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and its progressive form, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), are the most common forms of chronic liver diseases. Currently, liver biopsies are the gold standard for diagnosing NAFLD. Blood-based biomarkers to complement liver biopsies for diagnosis of NAFLD are required. We found that activated hepatic stellate cells, a cell type central to NAFLD pathogenesis, upregulate expression of the secreted protein SPARC-related modular calcium-binding protein 2 (SMOC2). SMOC2 was elevated in blood samples from patients with NASH and may hold promise as a blood-based biomarker for the diagnosis of NAFLD.

TidsskriftJHEP Reports
Udgave nummer2
StatusUdgivet - feb. 2023

Bibliografisk note

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