Background & aims: Activation of TGFB (transforming growth factor β) promotes liver fibrosis by activating hepatic stellate cells (HSCs), but the mechanisms of TGFB activation are not clear. We investigated the role of ECM1 (extracellular matrix protein 1), which interacts with extracellular and structural proteins, in TGFB activation in mouse livers.
Methods: We performed studies with C57BL/6J mice (controls), ECM1-knockout (ECM1-KO) mice, and mice with hepatocyte-specific knockout of EMC1 (ECM1Δhep). ECM1 or soluble TGFBR2 (TGFB receptor 2) were expressed in livers of mice after injection of an adeno-associated virus vector. Liver fibrosis was induced by carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) administration. Livers were collected from mice and analyzed by histology, immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization, and immunofluorescence analyses. Hepatocytes and HSCs were isolated from livers of mice and incubated with ECM1; production of cytokines and activation of reporter genes were quantified. Liver tissues from patients with viral or alcohol-induced hepatitis (with different stages of fibrosis) and individuals with healthy livers were analyzed by immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization.
Results: ECM1-KO mice spontaneously developed liver fibrosis and died by 2 months of age without significant hepatocyte damage or inflammation. In liver tissues of mice, we found that ECM1 stabilized extracellular matrix-deposited TGFB in its inactive form by interacting with αv integrins to prevent activation of HSCs. In liver tissues from patients and in mice with CCl4-induced liver fibrosis, we found an inverse correlation between level of ECM1 and severity of fibrosis. CCl4-induced liver fibrosis was accelerated in ECM1Δhep mice compared with control mice. Hepatocytes produced the highest levels of ECM1 in livers of mice. Ectopic expression of ECM1 or soluble TGFBR2 in liver prevented fibrogenesis in ECM1-KO mice and prolonged their survival. Ectopic expression of ECM1 in liver also reduced the severity of CCl4-induced fibrosis in mice.
Conclusions: ECM1, produced by hepatocytes, inhibits activation of TGFB and its activation of HSCs to prevent fibrogenesis in mouse liver. Strategies to increase levels of ECM1 in liver might be developed for treatment of fibrosis.
Keywords: Cirrhosis; ECM; Integrin Signaling; Mouse Model.
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