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PLoS One. 2014 Nov 7;9(11):e112193. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112193. eCollection 2014.

Systems level analysis and identification of pathways and networks associated with liver fibrosis.

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Department of Defense Biotechnology High Performance Computing Software Applications Institute, Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, Fort Detrick, Maryland, United States of America.
U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research, Fort Detrick, MD, United States of America.


Toxic liver injury causes necrosis and fibrosis, which may lead to cirrhosis and liver failure. Despite recent progress in understanding the mechanism of liver fibrosis, our knowledge of the molecular-level details of this disease is still incomplete. The elucidation of networks and pathways associated with liver fibrosis can provide insight into the underlying molecular mechanisms of the disease, as well as identify potential diagnostic or prognostic biomarkers. Towards this end, we analyzed rat gene expression data from a range of chemical exposures that produced observable periportal liver fibrosis as documented in DrugMatrix, a publicly available toxicogenomics database. We identified genes relevant to liver fibrosis using standard differential expression and co-expression analyses, and then used these genes in pathway enrichment and protein-protein interaction (PPI) network analyses. We identified a PPI network module associated with liver fibrosis that includes known liver fibrosis-relevant genes, such as tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-1, galectin-3, connective tissue growth factor, and lipocalin-2. We also identified several new genes, such as perilipin-3, legumain, and myocilin, which were associated with liver fibrosis. We further analyzed the expression pattern of the genes in the PPI network module across a wide range of 640 chemical exposure conditions in DrugMatrix and identified early indications of liver fibrosis for carbon tetrachloride and lipopolysaccharide exposures. Although it is well known that carbon tetrachloride and lipopolysaccharide can cause liver fibrosis, our network analysis was able to link these compounds to potential fibrotic damage before histopathological changes associated with liver fibrosis appeared. These results demonstrated that our approach is capable of identifying early-stage indicators of liver fibrosis and underscore its potential to aid in predictive toxicity, biomarker identification, and to generally identify disease-relevant pathways.

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