Hepatic macrophages act as a central hub for relaxin-mediated alleviation of liver fibrosis

Nat Nanotechnol. 2021 Apr;16(4):466-477. doi: 10.1038/s41565-020-00836-6. Epub 2021 Jan 25.

Abstract

Relaxin is an antifibrotic peptide hormone previously assumed to directly reverse the activation of hepatic stellate cells for liver fibrosis resolution. Using nanoparticle-mediated delivery, here we show that, although relaxin gene therapy reduces liver fibrosis in vivo, in vitro treatment fails to induce quiescence of the activated hepatic stellate cells. We show that hepatic macrophages express the primary relaxin receptor, and that, on relaxin binding, they switch from the profibrogenic to the pro-resolution phenotype. The latter releases exosomes that promote the relaxin-mediated quiescence of activated hepatic stellate cells through miR-30a-5p. Building on these results, we developed lipid nanoparticles that preferentially target activated hepatic stellate cells in the fibrotic liver and encapsulate the relaxin gene and miR-30a-5p mimic. The combinatorial gene therapy achieves synergistic antifibrosis effects in models of mouse liver fibrosis. Collectively, our findings highlight the key role that macrophages play in the relaxin-primed alleviation of liver fibrosis and demonstrate a proof-of-concept approach to devise antifibrotic strategies through the complementary application of nanotechnology and basic science.