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J Lipid Res. 2013 May;54(5):1326-34. doi: 10.1194/jlr.M034876. Epub 2013 Feb 17.

Hepatic cholesterol crystals and crown-like structures distinguish NASH from simple steatosis.

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Research Enhancement Award Program and Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, WA, USA.


We sought to determine whether hepatic cholesterol crystals are present in patients or mice with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease/nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and whether their presence or distribution correlates with the presence of NASH as compared with simple steatosis. We identified, by filipin staining, free cholesterol within hepatocyte lipid droplets in patients with NASH and in C57BL/6J mice that developed NASH following a high-fat high-cholesterol diet. Under polarized light these lipid droplets exhibited strong birefringence suggesting that some of the cholesterol was present in the form of crystals. Activated Kupffer cells aggregated around dead hepatocytes that included strongly birefringent cholesterol crystals, forming "crown-like structures" similar to those recently described in inflamed visceral adipose tissue. These Kupffer cells appeared to process the lipid of dead hepatocytes turning it into activated lipid-laden "foam cells" with numerous small cholesterol-containing droplets. In contrast, hepatocyte lipid droplets in patients and mice with simple steatosis did not exhibit cholesterol crystals and their Kupffer cells did not form crown-like structures or transform into foam cells. Our results suggest that cholesterol crystallization within hepatocyte lipid droplets and aggregation and activation of Kupffer cells in crown-like structures around such droplets represent an important, novel mechanism for progression of simple steatosis to NASH.

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