Background & Aims: The number of patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is increasing globally. Recently, specific chemokine receptors have garnered interest as therapeutic targets in NASH. This is the first report to examine the role of the C-C chemokine receptor 9 (CCR9)/C-C chemokine receptor ligand 25 (CCL25) axis, and to reveal its therapeutic potential in NASH. Methods: Patients with biopsy-proven non-alcoholic liver disease (NAFLD) were recruited and their serum and hepatic chemokine expression was examined. Furthermore, wild-type (WT) and Ccr9−/− mice were fed a high-fat high-cholesterol (HFHC) diet for 24 weeks to establish NASH. Results: Serum CCL25, and hepatic CCR9 and CCL25 expression levels were increased in patients with NASH compared to healthy volunteers. Furthermore, Ccr9−/− mice were protected from HFHC diet-induced NASH progression both serologically and histologically. Flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry analysis showed that CCR9+CD11b+ inflammatory macrophages accumulated in the inflamed livers of HFHC diet-fed mice, while the number was reduced in Ccr9−/− mice. Consistent with human NASH livers, CCR9 was also expressed on hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) in mice with NASH, while CCR9-deficient HSCs showed less fibrogenic potential in vitro. Administration of a CCR9 antagonist hampered further fibrosis progression in mice with NASH, supporting its potential clinical application. Finally, we showed that CCR9 blockade attenuated the development of NAFLD-related hepatocellular carcinoma in HF diet-fed mice injected with diethylnitrosamine. Conclusions: These results highlight the role of the CCR9/CCL25 axis on macrophage recruitment and fibrosis formation in a murine NASH model, providing new insights into therapeutic strategies for NASH. Lay summary: Herein, we show that a specific chemokine axis involving a receptor (CCR9) and its ligand (CCL25) contributes to the progression of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and carcinogenesis in humans and mice. Furthermore, treatment with a CCR9 antagonist ameliorates the development of steatohepatitis and holds promise for the treatment of patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.
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