1. Anhui Province Key Laboratory of Medical Physics and Technology, Institute of Health and Medical Technology, Hefei Institutes of Physical Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hefei 230031, China.
2. University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei 230026, China.
3. Hefei Cancer Hospital, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hefei 230031, China.
4. Department of Anatomy, Shanxi Medical University, Taiyuan 030024, China.
Rationale: Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), as one of the key stages in the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), can directly progress to HCC, but the underlying mechanism is not fully understood.
Methods: Differentially expressed genes (DEGs) in each stage of disease development were studied through a GEO dataset deriving from a Stelic Animal Model (STAM), which can simulate the evolution of NAFLD/NASH to HCC in humans. GSVA analysis was performed to analyze the differentially expressed oncogenic signatures in each stage. A human NAFLD-related dataset from GEO database was utilized for gene expression verification and further validated in the protein level in STAM mice. Small molecule inhibitors were applied to STAM mice for investigating whether inhibition of the LPL/FABP4/CPT1 axis could prevent the occurrence of NASH-related HCC in vivo. Microsphere formation and clonal formation assays in vitro were applied to study if inhibition of the LPL/FABP4/CPT1 axis can reduce the viability of liver cancer stem cells (LCSCs).
Results: We found that upregulation of the LPL/FABP4/CPT1 molecular axis, as a fatty acid metabolic reprogramming process, occurred specifically during the NASH phase. GSVA analysis showed widespread activation of a large number of oncogenic signals, which may contribute to malignant transformation during NASH. Furthermore, inhibition of the LPL/FABP4/CPT1 axis could effectively delay the tumor growth in STAM mice. Cell assays revealed inhibitors targeting this axis can significantly reduce the sphere-forming, proliferation, and clonality of LCSCs.
Conclusion: These results suggest that activation of the LPL/FABP4/CPT1 axis is essential for LCSCs maintenance, which acts synergistically with a variety of up-regulated oncogenic signals that drive the hepatocyte-LCSCs transdifferentiation during NASH to HCC progression. Thus, targeting the LPL/FABP4/CPT1 axis may provide a potential direction for NASH-related HCC prevention.
Keywords: Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, Hepatocellular carcinoma, Fatty acid metabolism, Gene differential expression, Metabolic reprogramming