Liver fibrosis is commonly observed in the terminal stages of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and with no specific and effective antifibrotic therapies available, this disease is a major global health burden. The MSP/Ron receptor axis has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties in a number of mouse models, due at least in part, to its ability to limit pro-inflammatory responses in tissue-resident macrophages and hepatocytes. In this study, we established the role of the Ron receptor in steatohepatitis-induced hepatic fibrosis using Ron ligand domain knockout mice on an apolipoprotein E knockout background (DKO). After 18 weeks of high-fat high-cholesterol feeding, loss of Ron activation resulted in exacerbated NASH-associated steatosis which is precedent to hepatocellular injury, inflammation and fibrosis. 1H nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR)-based metabolomics identified significant changes in serum metabolites that can modulate the intrahepatic lipid pool in hepatic steatosis. Serum from DKO mice had higher concentrations of lipids, VLDL/LDL and pyruvate, whereas glycine levels were reduced. Parallel to the aggravated steatohepatitis, increased accumulation of collagen, inflammatory immune cells and collagen producing-myofibroblasts were seen in the livers of DKO mice. Gene expression profiling revealed that DKO mice exhibited elevated expression of genes encoding Ron receptor ligand MSP, collagens, ECM remodeling proteins and pro-fibrogenic cytokines in the liver. Our results demonstrate the protective effects of Ron receptor activation on NASH-induced hepatic fibrosis.
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