Endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress refers to a condition of accumulation of unfolded or misfolded proteins in the ER lumen, which is known to activate an intracellular stress signaling termed Unfolded Protein Response (UPR). A number of pharmacologic reagents or pathophysiologic stimuli can induce ER stress and activation of the UPR signaling, leading to alteration of cell physiology that is associated with the initiation and progression of a variety of diseases. Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), characterized by hepatic steatosis and inflammation, has been considered the precursor or the hepatic manifestation of metabolic disease. In this study, we delineated the toxic effect and molecular basis by which pharmacologic ER stress, induced by a bacterial nucleoside antibiotic tunicamycin (TM), promotes NASH in an animal model. Mice of C57BL/6J strain background were challenged with pharmacologic ER stress by intraperitoneal injection of TM. Upon TM injection, mice exhibited a quick NASH state characterized by hepatic steatosis and inflammation. An increase in hepatic triglycerides (TG) and a decrease in plasma lipids, including plasma TG, plasma cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), were observed in the TM-treated mice. In response to TM challenge, cleavage of sterol responsive binding protein (SREBP)-1a and SREBP-1c, the key trans-activators for lipid and sterol biosynthesis, was dramatically increased in the liver. Consistent with the hepatic steatosis phenotype, expression of some key regulators and enzymes in de novo lipogenesis and lipid droplet formation was up-regulated, while expression of those involved in lipolysis and fatty acid oxidation was down-regulated in the liver of mice challenged with TM. Moreover, TM treatment significantly increased phosphorylation of NF-κB inhibitors (IκB), leading to the activation of NF-κB-mediated inflammatory pathway in the liver. Our study not only confirmed that pharmacologic ER stress is a strong "hit" that triggers NASH, but also demonstrated crucial molecular links between ER stress, lipid metabolism, and inflammation in the liver in vivo.
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