Vitamin D Receptor Activation in Liver Macrophages Ameliorates Hepatic Inflammation, Steatosis, and Insulin Resistance in Mice

Hepatology. 2020 May;71(5):1559-1574. doi: 10.1002/hep.30937. Epub 2020 Feb 23.


Background and aims: Obesity-induced chronic inflammation is a key component in the pathogenesis of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and insulin resistance. Increased secretion of proinflammatory cytokines by macrophages in metabolic tissues promotes disease progression. In the diet-induced obesity (DIO) mouse model, activation of liver resident macrophages, or Kupffer cells (KCs), drives inflammatory responses, which recruits circulating macrophages and promotes fatty liver development, and ultimately contributes to impaired hepatic insulin sensitivity. Hepatic macrophages express the highest level of vitamin D receptors (VDRs) among nonparenchymal cells, whereas VDR expression is very low in hepatocytes. VDR activation exerts anti-inflammatory effects in immune cells.

Approach and results: Here we found that VDR activation exhibits strong anti-inflammatory effects in mouse hepatic macrophages, including those isolated from DIO livers, and mice with genetic loss of Vdr developed spontaneous hepatic inflammation at 6 months of age. Under the chronic inflammation conditions of the DIO model, VDR activation by the vitamin D analog calcipotriol reduced liver inflammation and hepatic steatosis, significantly improving insulin sensitivity. The hyperinsulinemic euglycemic clamp revealed that VDR activation greatly increased the glucose infusion rate, while hepatic glucose production was remarkably decreased. Glucose uptake in muscle and adipose did not show similar effects, suggesting that improved hepatic insulin sensitivity is the primary contributor to the beneficial effects of VDR activation. Finally, specifically ablating liver macrophages by treatment with clodronate liposomes largely abolished the beneficial metabolic effects of calcipotriol, confirming that VDR activation in liver macrophages is required for the antidiabetic effect.

Conclusions: Activation of liver macrophage VDRs by vitamin D ligands ameliorates liver inflammation, steatosis and insulin resistance. Our results suggest therapeutic paradigms for treatment of NAFLD and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Hepatitis / etiology
  • Hepatitis / metabolism*
  • Inflammation / etiology
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Insulin Resistance*
  • Kupffer Cells / drug effects
  • Kupffer Cells / immunology
  • Kupffer Cells / metabolism*
  • Macrophage Activation
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / etiology
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / metabolism*
  • Obesity / complications
  • Receptors, Calcitriol / agonists
  • Receptors, Calcitriol / genetics
  • Receptors, Calcitriol / physiology*
  • Vitamin D / pharmacology


  • Receptors, Calcitriol
  • Vitamin D