Background & Aims: Dysregulation of the Keap1-Nrf2 pathway has been observed in experimental and human tumors, suggesting possible roles of the pathway in cancer development. Herein, we examined whether Nrf2 (Nfe2l2) activation occurs at early steps of rat hepatocarcinogenesis, to assess critical contributions of Nrf2 to the onset of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Methods: We used wild-type (WT) and Nrf2 knockout (Nrf2KO) rats treated with a single injection of diethylnitrosamine (DENA) followed by choline-devoid methionine-deficient (CMD) diet. This experimental model causes massive fatty liver and steatohepatitis with fibrosis and enables identification of early stages of hepatocarcinogenesis. Results: We found that Nrf2 activation takes place in early preneoplastic lesions identified by the marker glutathione S-transferase placental form (GSTP). Nrf2 missense mutations, known to disrupt the Keap1-Nrf2 binding, were present in 65.7% of GSTP-positive foci. Nrf2KO rats were used to directly investigate whether Nrf2 is critical for initiation and/or clonal expansion of DENA-damaged hepatocytes. While Nrf2 genetic inactivation did not alter DENA-induced initiation, it led to increased liver injury and chronic compensatory hepatocyte regeneration when rats were fed a CMD diet. However, in spite of such a permissive environment, the livers of Nrf2KO rats did not display any preneoplastic lesion unlike those of WT rats. Conclusions: These results demonstrate that, in a model of hepatocarcinogenesis resembling human non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: i) Nrf2 is activated at early steps of the tumorigenic process and ii) Nrf2 is mandatory for the clonal expansion of initiated cells, indicating that Nrf2 is critical in the onset of HCC. Lay summary: Dysregulation of the Keap1-Nrf2 molecular pathway has been observed in human tumors. In a nutritional model of hepatocarcinogenesis, the protein Nrf2 is frequently mutated/activated at early steps of the tumorigenic process. Herein, we show that Nrf2 is mandatory for the development of preneoplastic lesions. These results suggest that Nrf2 has a critical role in the onset of hepatocellular carcinoma.
- Choline-devoid methionine-deficient diet
- Knockout rat
- Preneoplastic lesions