The hepatocyte-specific HNF4α/miR-122 pathway contributes to iron overload–mediated hepatic inflammation

Min Li, Yuxiao Tang, Lusha Wu, Fengfeng Mo, Xin Wang, Hongxia Li, Ruirui Qi, Hongwei Zhang, Arun Srivastava and Chen Ling

Key Points

  • Iron overload induces inflammatory responses in both hepatocytes and macrophages.

  • In hepatocytes, the HNF4α/miR-122 pathway is a molecular target of iron overload.


Hepatic iron overload (IO) is a major complication of transfusional therapy. It was generally thought that IO triggers substantial inflammatory responses by producing reactive oxygen species in hepatic macrophages. Recently, a decrease in microRNA-122 (miR-122) expression was observed in a genetic knockout (Hfe−/−) mouse model of IO. Because hepatocyte-enriched miR-122 is a key regulator of multiple hepatic pathways, including inflammation, it is of interest whether hepatocyte directly contributes to IO-mediated hepatic inflammation. Here, we report that IO induced similar inflammatory responses in human primary hepatocytes and Thp-1–derived macrophages. In the mouse liver, IO resulted in altered expression of not only inflammatory genes but also >230 genes that are known targets of miR-122. In addition, both iron-dextran injection and a 3% carbonyl iron–containing diet led to upregulation of hepatic inflammation, which was associated with a significant reduction in HNF4α expression and its downstream target, miR-122. Interestingly, the same signaling pathway was changed in macrophage-deficient mice, suggesting that macrophages are not the only target of IO. Most importantly, hepatocyte-specific overexpression of miR-122 rescued IO-mediated hepatic inflammation. Our findings indicate the direct involvement of hepatocytes in IO-induced hepatic inflammation and are informative for developing new molecular targets and preventative therapies for patients with major hemoglobinopathy.

  • Submitted December 7, 2016.
  • Accepted May 15, 2017.
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