Immune mechanisms linking metabolic injury to inflammation and fibrosis in fatty liver disease - novel insights into cellular communication circuits

Peiseler, M., Schwabe, R., Hampe, J., Kubes, P., Heikenwälder, M., Tacke, F. (2022). J Hepatol 77, 1136-1160.



Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most prevalent chronic liver disease and is emerging as the leading cause of cirrhosis, liver transplantation and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). NAFLD is a metabolic disease that is considered the hepatic manifestation of the metabolic syndrome; however, during the evolution of NAFLD from steatosis to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), to more advanced stages of NASH with liver fibrosis, the immune system plays an integral role. Triggers for inflammation are rooted in hepatic (lipid overload, lipotoxicity, oxidative stress) and extrahepatic (gut-liver axis, adipose tissue, skeletal muscle) systems, resulting in unique immune-mediated pathomechanisms in NAFLD. In recent years, the implementation of single-cell RNA-sequencing and high dimensional multi-omics (proteogenomics, lipidomics) and spatial transcriptomics have tremendously advanced our understanding of the complex heterogeneity of various liver immune cell subsets in health and disease. In NAFLD, several emerging inflammatory mechanisms have been uncovered, including profound macrophage heterogeneity, auto-aggressive T cells, the role of unconventional T cells and platelet-immune cell interactions, potentially yielding novel therapeutics. In this review, we will highlight the recent discoveries related to inflammation in NAFLD, discuss the role of immune cell subsets during the different stages of the disease (including disease regression) and integrate the multiple systems driving inflammation. We propose a refined concept by which the immune system contributes to all stages of NAFLD and discuss open scientific questions arising from this paradigm shift that need to be unravelled in the coming years. Finally, we discuss novel therapeutic approaches to target the multiple triggers of inflammation, including combination therapy via nuclear receptors (FXR agonists, PPAR agonists).