Single-cell RNA-sequencing atlas reveals an FABP1-dependent immunosuppressive environment in hepatocellular carcinoma

J Immunother Cancer. 2023 Nov 24;11(11):e007030. doi: 10.1136/jitc-2023-007030.


Background: Single-cell RNA sequencing, also known as scRNA-seq, is a method profiling cell populations on an individual cell basis. It is particularly useful for more deeply understanding cell behavior in a complicated tumor microenvironment. Although several previous studies have examined scRNA-seq for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) tissues, no one has tested and analyzed HCC with different stages.

Methods: In this investigation, immune cells isolated from surrounding normal tissues and cancer tissues from 3 II-stage and 4 III-stage HCC cases were subjected to deep scRNA-seq. The analysis included 15 samples. We distinguished developmentally relevant trajectories, unique immune cell subtypes, and enriched pathways regarding differential genes. Western blot and co-immunoprecipitation were performed to demonstrate the interaction between fatty acid binding protein 1 (FABP1) and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma(PPARG). In vivo experiments were performed in a C57BL/6 mouse model of HCC established via subcutaneous injection.

Results: FABP1 was discovered to be overexpressed in tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) with III-stage HCC tissues compared with II-stage HCC tissues. This finding was fully supported by immunofluorescence detection in significant amounts of HCC human samples. FABP1 deficiency in TAMs inhibited HCC progression in vitro. Mechanistically, FABP1 interacted with PPARG/CD36 in TAMs to increase fatty acid oxidation in HCC. When compared with C57BL/6 mice of the wild type, tumors in FABP1-/- mice consistently showed attenuation. The FABP1-/- group's relative proportion of regulatory T cells and natural killer cells showed a downward trend, while dendritic cells, M1 macrophages, and B cells showed an upward trend, according to the results of mass cytometry. In further clinical translation, we found that orlistat significantly inhibited FABP1 activity, while the combination of anti-programmed cell death 1(PD-1) could synergistically treat HCC progression. Liposomes loaded with orlistat and connected with IR780 probe could further enhance the therapeutic effect of orlistat and visualize drug metabolism in vivo.

Conclusions: ScRNA-seq atlas revealed an FABP1-dependent immunosuppressive environment in HCC. Orlistat significantly inhibited FABP1 activity, while the combination of anti-PD-1 could synergistically treat HCC progression. This study identified new treatment targets and strategies for HCC progression, contributing to patients with advanced HCC from new perspectives.

Keywords: antibodies, neoplasm; antineoplastic protocols; liver neoplasms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / pathology
  • Fatty Acid-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Liver Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Orlistat / pharmacology
  • Orlistat / therapeutic use
  • PPAR gamma / metabolism
  • PPAR gamma / pharmacology
  • PPAR gamma / therapeutic use
  • RNA / pharmacology
  • RNA / therapeutic use
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • FABP1 protein, human
  • Fatty Acid-Binding Proteins
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Orlistat
  • PPAR gamma
  • RNA
  • Fabp1 protein, mouse