Nicotine induces fibrogenic changes in human liver via nicotinic acetylcholine receptors expressed on hepatic stellate cells

Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2012 Jan 6;417(1):17-22. doi: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2011.10.151. Epub 2011 Nov 15.


Background and aims: Cigarette smoke (CS) may cause liver fibrosis but possible involved mechanisms are unclear. Among the many chemicals in CS is nicotine - which affects cells through nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR). We studied the effects of nicotine, and involved pathways, on human primary hepatic stellate cells (hHSCs), the principal fibrogenic cells in the liver. We then determined possible disease relevance by assaying nAChR in liver samples from human non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

Methods: hHSC were isolated from healthy human livers and nAChR expression analyzed - RT-PCR and Western blotting. Nicotine induction of hHSC proliferation, upregulation of collagen1-α2 and the pro-fibrogenic cytokine transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-β1) was determined along with involved intracellular signaling pathways. nAChR mRNA expression was finally analyzed in whole liver biopsies obtained from patients diagnosed with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

Results: hHSCs express muscle type (α1, β1, delta and epsilon) and neuronal type (α3, α6, α7, β2 and β4) nAChR subunits at the mRNA level. Among these subunits, α3, α7, β1 and ε were predominantly expressed as confirmed by Western blotting. Nicotine induced hHSC proliferation was attenuated by mecamylamine (p<0.05). Additionally, collagen1-α2 and TGF-β1 mRNA expression were significantly upregulated by nicotine and inhibited by mecamylamine. α1 and α3-nAChR mRNA expression was significantly upregulated in NASH fibrosis compared to normal livers.

Conclusion: Nicotine at levels in smokers' blood is pro-fibrogenic, through actions on hHSCs expressed nAChRs. Therefore, CS, via its nicotine content, may worsen liver fibrosis. Moreover, nicotinic receptor antagonists may have utility as novel anti-fibrotic agents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Collagen / genetics
  • Gene Expression / drug effects
  • Hepatic Stellate Cells / drug effects*
  • Hepatic Stellate Cells / metabolism
  • Hepatic Stellate Cells / pathology
  • Humans
  • Liver Cirrhosis / chemically induced*
  • Liver Cirrhosis / metabolism
  • Liver Cirrhosis / pathology
  • Mecamylamine / pharmacology
  • Nicotine / adverse effects*
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Protein Kinase C / metabolism
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / biosynthesis*
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta1 / genetics


  • Nicotinic Antagonists
  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta1
  • Mecamylamine
  • Nicotine
  • Collagen
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • Protein Kinase C