Fatty liver disease: four signs of the disease explained
Accumulation of fat in the liver can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition seen in overweight or obese people.
NAFLD is not caused by alcohol, but if left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis resembling liver damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
However, foods and drinks containing alcohol or sugar can make the situation worse, so it is advisable to limit their consumption.
NAFLD is the most common liver disease in the world.
More than 90% of obese people, 60% of diabetics and 20% of people with a healthy weight suffer from this disease.
The human liver normally contains some fat, but when fat exceeds 5% of liver weight, fatty liver can develop.
In the early stages, NAFLD usually has no symptoms, but it can be detected by a liver function test from the blood sample.
The warning signs appear when it progresses to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) or fibrosis in which the liver has become inflamed.
A person with NASH may experience:
- extremely tired,
- pain in the upper right of the belly on the lower right side of the ribs,
- and lose weight for no reason.
Prolonged fibrosis and persistent inflammation will cause cirrhosis where the liver is severely scarred and damaged.
Permanent damage can lead to liver cancer, liver failure, and ultimately death.
Symptoms of cirrhosis can include:
- itchy skin,
- edema (swelling of the legs or stomach),
- and jaundice (the skin and the whites of the eyes turn yellow).
We don’t know how mild fatty liver disease develops into serious disease such as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and liver fibrosis.
To understand the process, the researchers performed a genetic analysis of hepatocytes, the main functional cells of the liver.
Professor Stephan Herzig, co-author of the study, said:
“Understanding the mechanism by which this condition becomes fatal is essential in our quest to find therapeutic solutions and preventive measures.”
The research team developed a method targeting particular nodes of the protein network to halt disease progression or even prevent fibrosis.
A network of proteins called “transcription factors” is involved in the process of hepatocyte reprogramming.
Failure of the process could lead to dysfunction of hepatocyte cells.
For example, during the development of NASH, hepatocyte cells lose their identity.
Dr Ana Alfaro, the first author of the study, said:
“These findings are important because they unravel the cellular mechanisms underlying non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.
Knowing the role of protein networks and the loss of hepatocyte identity gives us potential intervention targets for the development of effective therapies.
The study was published in the journal Cell metabolism (Loft et al., 2021).