Mechanism that drives development of liver cancer brought on by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease discovered

A team of researchers from several institutions in China has found a mechanism that appears to drive the development of a type of liver cancer not caused by alcohol consumption. In their paper published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the group describes their study of liver cancer in mouse models and what they found. Ngee Kiat Chua, Hudson Coates and Andrew Brown with the University of New South Wales offer a Focus piece on the work done by the team in China in the same journal issue.

Most everyone knows that alcoholics are at risk of developing liver cancer due to the impact of alcohol on their livers over the course of a lifetime. Less well understood are types of liver cancers that can be attributed to obesity-related factors (primarily because of high cholesterol levels) and more specifically, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). In this new effort, the researchers studied mouse models (mice engineered to develop NAFLD and liver cancer) to better understand how NAFLD-related cancers develop. They note that such research has become more urgent as NAFLD-related liver cancers have become more prevalent in recent years.

The team started with prior research results showing that one particular type of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, is particularly prevalent in obese people. Suspecting that it is tied to the SQLE gene, which causes the creation of the enzyme squalene epoxidase in the body, the researchers collected RNA samples from tumor tissue in mouse models and from tissue near the same tumors. They found that SQLE was over-expressed in the tumor tissue as compared to wild mice. They also found that mice that over-expressed the enzyme were more likely to develop liver cancer.

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