Background/aims: Activated hepatic stellate cells produce increased levels of collagen in animal models of chronic iron overload; however, their role in human genetic haemochromatosis is unknown. This study examined the relationship between hepatic iron concentration and hepatic stellate cell activation in genetic haemochromatosis.
Methods: Liver biopsies from 75 patients (55 with haemochromatosis, 14 haemochromatosis patients both pre- and post-phlebotomy and six non iron-loaded disease control subjects) were stained for iron using Perls' Prussian Blue. Thirty biopsies in which there was no evidence of either steatosis or inflammation were subjected to immunohistochemistry for alpha-smooth muscle actin and desmin and counterstained for iron. Forty-five biopsies demonstrated either steatosis or inflammation, in addition to excess iron.
Results: Stellate cells were identified by light microscopy as perisinusoidal cells containing numerous intracellular fat droplets. alpha-Smooth muscle actin was detected in biopsies with an hepatic iron concentration >60 micromol/g dry weight. Increasing hepatic iron concentration and hepatic iron index correlated with an increase in alpha-smooth muscle actin expression (r=0.81 and 0.72, respectively). Phlebotomy resulted in a significant decrease in alpha-smooth muscle actin expression. In early disease prior to histological evidence of collagen deposition, whilst activated stellate cells were located in Zone 1, greater numbers were found in Zones 2 and 3 distal to the region of heaviest iron overload.
Conclusions: This study has demonstrated for the first time in humans a correlation between hepatic iron concentration and stellate cell activation in haemochromatosis, which is reversed by iron removal. Humoral factors from either iron-loaded hepatocytes or activated Kupffer cells may be responsible for early stellate cell activation in areas of the liver remote from heavy iron loading.