Elucidating the role of ATF6α as a critical pro-fibrogenic transcription factor in Hepatic Stellate Cells

Project: Research project

Project Details


Cirrhosis is a global health crisis that develops in response to chronic liver injury. Liver injury activates Hepatic Stellate Cells (HSCs) which differentiate into fibrogenic myofibroblasts. Fibrogenic HSCs produce and secrete vast amounts of matrix proteins that deposit into the extracellular space leading to fibrosis, and if unchecked, cirrhosis. While fibrosis is reversible upon removal of injurious stimuli, no therapies effectively promote fibrosis regression. Production of matrix proteins by fibrogenic HSCs leads to excess proteins in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), placing stress on the ER. ER stress initiates the Unfolded Protein Response (UPR), a signaling cascade allowing HSCs to adapt to increased protein load and facilitate efficient protein folding and secretion. If ER stress is unresolved, UPR signaling switches from adaptive to pro-apoptotic. We propose that targeting mechanisms facilitating HSC adaptation to ER stress would promote HSC apoptosis and limit fibrogenesis, leading to fibrosis regression in vivo. Preliminary data shows that Activating Transcription Factor 6α (ATF6α), a transcription factor and effector of the UPR, is crucial for HSC activation and survival in vitro and fibrogenesis in vivo; however, the mechanisms underlying this role are unknown. RNAseq performed on ATF6αΔ/Δ HSCs isolated from mice following 4 weeks of CCl4 injection revealed dysregulation of genes involved in ossificaiton, protein degradation, apoptotic signaling, chromatin remodeling, and cellular response to starvation compared to HSCs isolated from WT mice. We hypothesize that ATF6α activates profibrogenic transcriptional programs to promote adaption of fibrogenic HSCs to ER stress and HSC survival. Aim 1 will investigate the role of the ATF6α-regulated genes involved in ossification identified by our RNAseq on HSCs isolated from mice with CCl4-induced fibrosis. We will additionally use RNAseq/ATACseq to understand the short-term transcriptional impact of ATF6α deletion in HSCs. These analyses will reveal ATF6α-dependent changes in the transcriptional and chromatin landscapes that drive fibrogenesis. Aim 2 will study how ATF6α promotes HSC survival through ER-phagy: selective autophagic degradation of the ER. ER- phagy is critical for secretory cell survival but its role in HSCs and fibrogenesis is unknown. We show that ER- phagic flux increases in activated HSCs. Furthermore, ER-phagy receptors are upregulated in cirrhotic livers and activated HSCs, and this upregulation is ATF6α-dependent. Aim 2 will study how ER-phagy maintains ER function and promotes HSC survival to drive fibrogenesis, how ATF6α promotes ER-phagic flux in activated HSCs, and the mechanisms by which key ER-phagy receptors target unfolded and misfolded proteins for degradation. Together, the proposed studies will establish ATF6α as a key profibrotic transcription factor in HSCs, provide insight into fibrogenic transcription regulated by ATF6α during fibrogenesis, and identify a critical pro-fibrogenic role for ER-phagy. These studies will help lay the groundwork for my initial R01 application, facilitating my transition from K01 recipient to independent investigator.
Effective start/end date7/1/226/30/24


  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: $118,875.00
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: $118,875.00


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