In vivo assessment of liver cell apoptosis as a novel biomarker of disease severity in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.


In patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a liver biopsy remains the only reliable way to differentiate simple steatosis from nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Noninvasive methods are urgently needed. Increasing evidence suggests hepatocyte apoptosis is a key mediator of liver injury in NAFLD. The aim of this study was to quantify hepatocyte apoptosis in plasma from patients with NAFLD and correlate it with histological severity. Plasma was obtained from 44 consecutive patients with suspected NAFLD at the time of liver biopsy. Histology was assessed blindly. Caspase-3–generated cytokeratin-18 fragments were measured in situ via immunohistochemistry and in vivo using a novel enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Plasma cytokeratin-18 fragments were markedly increased in patients with NASH compared with patients with simple steatosis or normal biopsies (median [interquartile range]: 765.7 U/L [479.6–991.1], 202.4 U/L [160.4–258.2], 215.5 U/L [150.2–296.2], respectively; P < .001). Cytokeratin-18 fragment levels independently predicted NASH (OR 1.95; 95% CI 1.18–3.22; P = .009 for every 50 U/L increase). A cutoff value of 395 U/L calculated using the receiver operating characteristic curve approach showed a specificity of 99.9%, a sensitivity of 85.7%, and positive and negative predictive values of 99.9% and 85.7%, respectively, for the diagnosis of NASH. In conclusion, these findings strongly suggest that determination of hepatocyte caspase activation in the blood is a strong and independent predictor of NASH in human subjects. These data highlight the potential usefulness of this test as a noninvasive diagnostic means of determining histological disease severity in patients with NAFLD. (HEPATOLOGY 2006;44:27–33.)