Background: The mechanisms of progression from fatty liver to steatohepatitis and cirrhosis are not well elucidated. Mitochondrial dysfunction represents a key factor in the progression of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) as mitochondria are the main cellular site of fatty acid oxidation, ATP synthesis and reactive oxygen species (ROS) production.
Aims: (1) To evaluate the role of the uncoupling protein 2 in controlling mitochondrial proton leak and ROS production in NASH rats and humans; and (2) to assess the acute liver damage induced by ischaemia–reperfusion in rats with NASH.
Methods: Mitochondria were extracted from the livers of NASH humans and rats fed a methionine and choline deficient diet. Proton leak, H2O2 synthesis, reduced glutathione/oxidised glutathione, 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal (HNE)–protein adducts, uncoupling protein-2 (UCP2) expression and ATP homeostasis were evaluated before and after ischaemia–reperfusion injury.
Results: NASH mitochondria exhibited an increased rate of proton leak due to upregulation of UCP2. These results correlated with increased production of mitochondrial hydrogen peroxide and HNE–protein adducts, and decreased hepatic ATP content that was not dependent on mitochondrial ATPase dysfunction. The application of an ischaemia–reperfusion protocol to these livers strongly depleted hepatic ATP stores, significantly increased mitochondrial ROS production and impaired ATPase activity. Livers from patients with NASH exhibited UCP2 over-expression and mitochondrial oxidative stress.
Conclusions: Upregulation of UCP2 in human and rat NASH liver induces mitochondrial uncoupling, lowers the redox pressure on the mitochondrial respiratory chain and acts as a protective mechanism against damage progression but compromises the liver capacity to respond to additional acute energy demands, such as ischaemia–reperfusion. These findings suggest that UCP2-dependent mitochondria uncoupling is an important factor underlying events leading to NASH and cirrhosis.
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Funding: This study was partially supported by the Ministero dell’Universitè e della Ricerca (MIUR) – Progetto di Ricerca di Interesse Nazionale 2007.
Competing interests: None.
Ethics approval: This study was approved by the local ethics committees of the University of Foggia and the University of Valencia, 29 July 2005. The study conformed to the guidelines given in the Declaration of Helsinki, 1975.