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New USC CiMUS discovery to combat non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

  • The study shows that people with the disease have elevated levels of a protein in the liver that is known to play a crucial role in the body's immune response to viral infections.
  • The research opens the door to new therapeutic options for this pathology, whose incidence is growing every year and whose global prevalence is estimated at 30%.

Researchers from the USC CiMUS Molecular Metabolism group, led by Rubén Nogueiras, have just discovered a new target related to a protein involved in the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a pathology for which there is no treatment, which already affects 25% of the Spanish population and whose incidence is growing year after year.

The study, which has just been published in the journal Hepatology, has identified a new target in metabolic dysfunction-associated fatty liver disease (MASLD).


Clear risk of liver disease

Several studies have shown that MASLD is becoming one of the most important causes of liver disease worldwide, with an estimated global prevalence rate of around 30%, posing a major public health challenge worldwide.

MASLD is characterised by fat accumulation in the liver (5% fat is sufficient to classify the liver as fatty), and is closely linked to metabolic disorders such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. The disease ranges from simple fat accumulation in the liver to metabolic associated steatohepatitis (MASH), which can progress to cirrhosis and even liver cancer. The increasing prevalence of MASLD in both developed and developing countries has made it the most common cause of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and requires liver transplantation.


Essential protein also against viral infections

‘This study shows that people with MASLD have elevated levels of a protein called MAVS (mitochondrial antiviral signalling protein) in the liver, which is known to play a crucial role in the body's immune response to viral infections. MAVS is also elevated in the livers of mice fed a diet rich in processed foods, saturated fats, refined sugars and red meat.) ‘Inhibition of MAVS in the liver significantly decreases fat accumulation, inflammation and liver damage,’ say lead authors Eva Nóvoa and Natália Lima.  

In the context of MASLD, inflammation plays a crucial role, as the activation of certain pathways promotes the expression of pro-inflammatory proteins, thus contributing to disease progression. ‘We have shown that inhibition of MAVS leads to an improvement in inflammation by decreasing the levels of two inflammatory proteins,’ they explain. ‘We have found this mechanism to be effective in both rodent and human liver cells, but there is still a long way to go before we know whether inhibiting MAVS in people with MASLD can be an effective and safe therapy,’ the researchers add. What is obvious is that different therapeutic options need to be put on the table, because so far there is no treatment for MASLD, and the incidence of this disease is growing year after year.

This study is the result of the work of researchers Eva Nóvoa Deaño and Natália Lima from the Molecular Metabolism group of the Centre for Research in Molecular Medicine and Chronic Diseases (CiMUS), coordinated by Rubén Nogueiras Pozo and in which CiMUS research teams (Miguel López, Marta Varela-Rey and Carlos Varela-Rey) have participated, Marta Varela-Rey and Carlos Diéguez), as well as groups from the University of the Basque Country, CIC bioGUNE (Bilbao), University of Amsterdam, University of Navarra, University of Lille (France) and University of Lübeck (Germany).