Gene Expression Predicts Histological Severity and Reveals Distinct Molecular Profiles of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Sci Rep. 2019 Aug 29;9(1):12541. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-48746-5.


The heterogeneity of biological processes driving the severity of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) as reflected in the transcriptome and the relationship between the pathways involved are not well established. Well-defined associations between gene expression profiles and disease progression would benefit efforts to develop novel therapies and to understand disease heterogeneity. We analyzed hepatic gene expression in controls and a cohort with the full histological spectrum of NAFLD. Protein-protein interaction and gene set variation analysis revealed distinct sets of coordinately regulated genes and pathways whose expression progressively change over the course of the disease. The progressive nature of these changes enabled us to develop a framework for calculating a disease progression score for individual genes. We show that, in aggregate, these scores correlate strongly with histological measures of disease progression and can thus themselves serve as a proxy for severity. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the expression levels of a small number of genes (~20) can be used to infer disease severity. Finally, we show that patient subgroups can be distinguished by the relative distribution of gene-level scores in specific gene sets. While future work is required to identify the specific disease characteristics that correspond to patient clusters identified on this basis, this work provides a general framework for the use of high-content molecular profiling to identify NAFLD patient subgroups.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cohort Studies
  • Disease Progression
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Histology
  • Humans
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / genetics*
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / metabolism
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / pathology
  • Proteins / genetics
  • Proteins / metabolism
  • Transcriptome


  • Proteins