Butyrate Protects against Diet-Induced NASH and Liver Fibrosis and Suppresses Specific Non-Canonical TGF-β Signaling Pathways in Human Hepatic Stellate Cells

Biomedicines. 2021 Dec 20;9(12):1954. doi: 10.3390/biomedicines9121954.


In obesity-associated non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), persistent hepatocellular damage and inflammation are key drivers of fibrosis, which is the main determinant of NASH-associated mortality. The short-chain fatty acid butyrate can exert metabolic improvements and anti-inflammatory activities in NASH. However, its effects on NASH-associated liver fibrosis remain unclear. Putative antifibrotic effects of butyrate were studied in Ldlr-/-.Leiden mice fed an obesogenic diet (HFD) containing 2.5% (w/w) butyrate for 38 weeks and compared with a HFD-control group. Antifibrotic mechanisms of butyrate were further investigated in TGF-β-stimulated primary human hepatic stellate cells (HSC). HFD-fed mice developed obesity, insulin resistance, increased plasma leptin levels, adipose tissue inflammation, gut permeability, dysbiosis, and NASH-associated fibrosis. Butyrate corrected hyperinsulinemia, lowered plasma leptin levels, and attenuated adipose tissue inflammation, without affecting gut permeability or microbiota composition. Butyrate lowered plasma ALT and CK-18M30 levels and attenuated hepatic steatosis and inflammation. Butyrate inhibited fibrosis development as demonstrated by decreased hepatic collagen content and Sirius-red-positive area. In TGF-β-stimulated HSC, butyrate dose-dependently reduced collagen deposition and decreased procollagen1α1 and PAI1 protein expression. Transcriptomic analysis and subsequent pathway and upstream regulator analysis revealed deactivation of specific non-canonical TGF-β signaling pathways Rho-like GTPases and PI3K/AKT and other important pro-fibrotic regulators (e.g., YAP/TAZ, MYC) by butyrate, providing a potential rationale for its antifibrotic effects. In conclusion, butyrate protects against obesity development, insulin resistance-associated NASH, and liver fibrosis. These antifibrotic effects are at least partly attributable to a direct effect of butyrate on collagen production in hepatic stellate cells, involving inhibition of non-canonical TGF-β signaling pathways.

Keywords: adipose tissue inflammation; butyrate; collagen; gut; hepatic stellate cells; liver fibrosis; non-alcoholic steatohepatitis; obesity.