Extracellular histones stimulate collagen expression and potentially promote liver fibrogenesis via TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway
BACKGROUND Liver fibrosis progressing to liver cirrhosis and hepatic carcinoma is very common and causes more than one million deaths annually. Fibrosis develops from recurrent liver injury but the molecular mechanisms are not fully understood. Recently, the Toll-like receptor (TLR) 4-MyD88 signalling pathway has been reported to contribute to fibrosis. Extracellular histones are the ligands of TLR4 but their roles in liver fibrosis have not been investigated. AIM This study aims to investigate the roles and potential mechanisms of extracellular histones in liver fibrosis. METHODS In vitro, the LX2 cells, a human hepatic stellate cell (HSC) line, were treated with histones in the presence or absence of non-anticoagulant heparin (NAHP) for neutralising histones or TLR4-blocking antibody. The cells resultant expression of collagen I was detected using Western blotting and immunofluorescent staining. In vivo , the CCl4-induced liver fibrosis model was generated in male 6 week old ICR mice and in TLR4 or MyD88 knockout and parental mice. Circulating histones were detected and the effect of NAHP was evaluated. RESULTS Extracellular histones strongly stimulated LX2 cells to produce collagen I. The histone-enhanced collagen expression was significantly reduced by NAHP and TLR4 blocking antibody. In CCl4-treated wild type mice, circulating histones were dramatically increased and maintained high levels during the whole course of fibrosis-induction. Injection of NAHP not only reduced alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and liver injury scores, but also significantly reduced fibrogenesis. Since the TLR4-blocking antibody reduced histone-enhanced collagen I production in HSC, the CCl4 model with TLR-4 and MyD88 knockout mice was used to demonstrate the roles of the TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway in CCl4-induced liver fibrosis. The levels of liver fibrosis were indeed significantly lower than in these knockout mice than the wild type parental mice. CONCLUSION This study demonstrated that extracellular histones are able to stimulate HSC to produce collagen I and TLR4 is involved in this process. The in vivo findings support the novel concept that high levels of circulating histones potentially stimulate TLR4 receptor to enhance fibrogenesis via the TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway. NAHP detoxify extracellular histones and thus has a potential therapeutic role by reducing liver injury and fibrogenesis. Core tip This work fills the gap between recurrent liver injury and liver fibrosis. When liver cells die, histones will be released. High levels of extracellular histones not only cause a secondary liver injury, but also activate the TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway to enhance collagen I production and liver fibrosis. Binding of non-anticoagulant heparin (NAHP) to extracellular histones reduces histone toxicity, alleviates liver injury and prevent histones from activating the TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway. These results may explain why NAHP reduces liver fibrosis in this animal model although further investigations are required. Research background Currently, the molecular mechanisms of liver fibrosis are not fully understood. Recurrent liver injury or inflammation initiate wound healing process along with fibrogenesis. However, what initiates this process is not clear. When cells die, damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) will be released. Histones are the most abundant DAMP and are also the ligands for TLR4, which in turn has been demonstrated to be involved in bile duct ligation-induced liver fibrosis. Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) has been proposed to be a ligand for TLR4. Since recurrent liver injury does not naturally produce LPS but abundant extracellular histones, this study sought to investigate the potential roles of extracellular histones as TLR4 ligands in liver fibrosis. Research motivation Since our laboratory has been involved in studying the roles of DAMPs in critical illnesses, extracellular histones in liver fibrosis is of great interest in terms of biological and clinical significance. Research objectives Our study aimed to clarify the roles of extracellular histones in fibrogenesis in vitro and in vivo. Research methods In our study, a HSC cell line and animal models of liver fibrosis were employed. Intervention studies with NAHP to detoxify histones and TLR4 blocking antibodies to inhibit TLR4 was performed. In addition, TLR4 and MyD88 knockout mice were used to support that the theory that the TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway is involved in liver fibrosis in the CCl4 mouse model. Research results 1. Demonstrated that high levels of circulating histones exist when fibrosis is induced by CCl4 in the mouse model. 2. Demonstrated in vitro that extracellular histones are able to stimulate HSC cells to produce collagen I. 3. Demonstrated that NAHP is able to inhibit histone-enhanced collagen production in the HSC cell line, and reduce liver injury and fibrosis in the animal model. 4. Demonstrated that TLR4 is involved in histone-enhanced collagen I production in HSC cells. In vivo , the TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway was demonstrated to be involved in liver fibrosis, but whether circulating histones are the major activators of the pathway is not fully clear. Research conclusion Recurrent liver injury releases extracellular histones which potentially activate TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway to promote liver fibrosis. The ability of NAHP to detoxify circulating histones holds the potential for the treatment of liver injury and prevention of liver fibrosis. Research perspectives Future studies demonstrating the contributions of circulating histones in activating the TLR4-MyD88 signalling pathway in vivo will validate their role in liver fibrosis. Development of better anti-histone reagents to reduce liver injury and prevent liver fibrosis will hold great potential in the management of diseases with recurrent liver injury. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.
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