Background: Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis is a distinct entity, characterized by fatty change, lobular inflammation and fibrosis of the liver. Some cases of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis progress to cirrhosis, but it is not easy to distinguish this disease from non-alcoholic fatty liver by non-invasive examinations. No proven therapy for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis exists. Transforming growth factor-beta1 is implicated in the development of liver fibrosis, and is inhibited by alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) in the liver. Therefore, in this study, the significance of the measurement of the level of plasma transforming growth factor-beta1 and the effect of alpha-tocopherol on the clinical course of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis were investigated.
Methods: Twelve patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and 10 patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver, with a diagnosis confirmed by liver biopsy, were studied. None of the patients had a history of alcohol abuse, habitual medicine or malignant or inflammatory diseases. All patients were negative for hepatitis B, C and G virus. Patients were given dietary instruction for 6 months, and then alpha-tocopherol (300 mg/day) was given for 1 year. Blood chemistries, measurement of plasma transforming growth factor-beta1 level and liver biopsies were undertaken before and after the 1-year alpha-tocopherol treatment.
Results: The serum alanine transaminase level decreased in non-alcoholic fatty liver patients, but not in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis patients, after 6 months of dietary therapy. Although the serum alanine transaminase level in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis patients was reduced during the 1-year alpha-tocopherol treatment, alpha-tocopherol had no effect on the serum alanine transaminase level in non-alcoholic fatty liver patients. The histological findings, such as steatosis, inflammation and fibrosis, of the non-alcoholic steatohepatitis patients were improved after alpha-tocopherol treatment. The plasma transforming growth factor-beta1 level in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis patients was significantly elevated compared with that in non-alcoholic fatty liver patients and healthy controls, and decreased, accompanied by an improvement in serum alanine transaminase level, with alpha-tocopherol treatment.
Conclusions: Our data suggest that the measurement of the level of plasma transforming growth factor-beta1 represents a possible method of distinguishing between non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and non-alcoholic fatty liver. Long-term alpha-tocopherol treatment may be safe and effective for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. A randomized, controlled, double-blind trial is needed to confirm the full potential of alpha-tocopherol in the management of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.