Background & aims: Previous studies demonstrated that autophagy is protective in hepatocytes and macrophages, but detrimental in hepatic stellate cells in chronic liver diseases. The role of autophagy in liver sinusoidal endothelial cells (LSECs) in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is unknown. Our aim was to analyze the potential implication of autophagy in LSECs in NASH and liver fibrosis.

Methods: We analyzed autophagy in LSECs from patients using transmission electron microscopy. We determined the consequences of a deficiency in autophagy: (a) on LSEC phenotype, using primary LSECs and an LSEC line; (b) on early stages of NASH and on advanced stages of liver fibrosis, using transgenic mice deficient in autophagy specifically in endothelial cells and fed a high-fat diet or chronically treated with carbon tetrachloride, respectively.

Results: Patients with NASH had half as many LSECs containing autophagic vacuoles as patients without liver histological abnormalities, or with simple steatosis. LSECs from mice deficient in endothelial autophagy displayed an upregulation of genes implicated in inflammatory pathways. In the LSEC line, deficiency in autophagy enhanced inflammation (Ccl2, Ccl5, Il6 and VCAM-1 expression), features of endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition (α-Sma, Tgfb1, Col1a2 expression) and apoptosis (cleaved caspase-3). In mice fed a high-fat diet, deficiency in endothelial autophagy induced liver expression of inflammatory markers (Ccl2, Ccl5, Cd68, Vcam-1), liver cell apoptosis (cleaved caspase-3) and perisinusoidal fibrosis. Mice deficient in endothelial autophagy treated with carbon tetrachloride also developed more perisinusoidal fibrosis.

Conclusions: A defect in autophagy in LSECs occurs in patients with NASH. Deficiency in endothelial autophagy promotes the development of liver inflammation, features of endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition, apoptosis and liver fibrosis in the early stages of NASH, but also favors more advanced stages of liver fibrosis.

Lay summary: Autophagy is a physiological process controlling endothelial homeostasis in vascular beds outside the liver. This study demonstrates that autophagy is defective in the liver endothelial cells of patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. This defect promotes liver inflammation and fibrosis at early stages of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, but also at advanced stages of chronic liver disease.