Abstract Background Cholestatic liver diseases are a major source of morbidity and mortality that can progress to end-stage liver disease and hyperbilirubinemia is a hallmark of cholestasis. There are few effective medical therapies for primary biliary cholangitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis and other cholestatic liver diseases, in part, due to our incomplete understanding of the pathogenesis of cholestatic liver injury. The hepatic unfolded protein response (UPR) is an adaptive cellular response to endoplasmic reticulum stress that is important in the pathogenesis of many liver diseases and recent animal studies have demonstrated the importance of the UPR in the pathogenesis of cholestatic liver injury. However, the role of the UPR in human cholestatic liver diseases is largely unknown. Methods RNA was extracted from liver biopsies from patients after liver transplantation. RNA-seq was performed to determine the transcriptional profile and hepatic UPR gene expression that is associated with liver injury and cholestasis. Results Transcriptome analysis revealed that patients with hyperbilirubinemia had enhanced expression of hepatic UPR pathways. Alternatively, liver biopsy samples from patients with acute rejection had enhanced gene expression of LAG3 and CDK1. Pearson correlation analysis of serum alanine aminotransferase, aspartate aminotransferase and total bilirubin levels demonstrated significant correlations with the hepatic expression of several UPR genes, as well as genes involved in hepatic bile acid metabolism and inflammation. In contrast, serum alkaline phosphatase levels were correlated with the level of hepatic bile acid metabolism gene expression but not liver UPR gene expression. Conclusions Overall, these data indicate that hepatic UPR pathways are increased in cholestatic human liver biopsy samples and supports an important role of the UPR in the mechanism of human cholestatic liver injury.
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