Background & aims: The transcription factor nuclear factor-kappaB (NF)-kappaB promotes survival of hepatic myofibroblasts and fibrogenesis through poorly defined mechanisms. We investigated the activities of angiotensin II and I kappaB kinase (IKK) in regulation of NF-kappaB activity and the role of these proteins in liver fibrosis in rodents and humans.
Methods: Phosphorylation of the NF-kappaB subunit RelA at serine 536 (P-Ser(536)-RelA) was detected by immunoblot and immunohistochemical analyses. P-Ser(536)-RelA function was assessed using vectors that expressed mutant forms of RelA, cell-permeable blocking peptides, and assays for RelA nuclear transport and apoptosis. Levels of P-Ser(536)-RelA were compared with degree of fibrosis in liver sections from chronically injured rats and patients with hepatitis C virus-mediated fibrosis who had been treated with the AT1 antagonist losartan.
Results: Constitutive P-Ser(536)-RelA is a feature of human hepatic myofibroblasts, both in vitro and in situ in diseased livers. Autocrine angiotensin II stimulated IKK-mediated phosphorylation of RelA at Ser(536), which was required for nuclear transport and transcriptional activity of NF-kappaB. Inhibition of angiotensin II, the angiotensin II receptor type 1 (AT1), or IKK blocked Ser(536) phosphorylation and stimulated myofibroblast apoptosis. Treatment of fibrotic rodent liver with the angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor captopril or the IKK inhibitor sulphasalazine resulted in loss of P-Ser(536)-RelA-positive myofibroblasts and fibrosis regression. In human liver samples, increased numbers of P-Ser(536)-RelA-positive cells were associated with fibrosis that regressed following exposure to losartan.
Conclusions: An autocrine pathway that includes angiotensin II, IKK, and P-Ser(536)-RelA regulates myofibroblast survival and can be targeted to stimulate therapeutic regression of liver fibrosis.