Loss of hepatocyte β-catenin protects mice from experimental porphyria-associated liver injury

Published:October 01, 2018DOI:


      • Porphyrias are caused by defects in heme biosynthesis, which can lead to cholestasis, inflammation, and fibrosis.
      • The Wnt/β-catenin pathway plays a role in pathological processes in the liver, including cholestasis and biliary injury.
      • Inhibiting β-catenin in a mouse model of porphyria resulted in decreased liver injury.
      • Several key heme biosynthesis enzymes were downregulated in livers lacking β-catenin signaling.
      • Mice lacking β-catenin had fewer protein aggregates, resulting in improved proteasomal activity and less autophagy.

      Background & Aims

      Porphyrias result from anomalies of heme biosynthetic enzymes and can lead to cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer. In mice, these diseases can be modeled by administration of a diet containing 3,5-diethoxycarbonyl-1,4-dihydrocollidine (DDC), which causes accumulation of porphyrin intermediates, resulting in hepatobiliary injury. Wnt/β-catenin signaling has been shown to be a modulatable target in models of biliary injury; thus, we investigated its role in DDC-driven injury.


      β-Catenin (Ctnnb1) knockout (KO) mice, Wnt co-receptor KO mice, and littermate controls were fed a DDC diet for 2 weeks. β-Catenin was exogenously inhibited in hepatocytes by administering β-catenin dicer-substrate RNA (DsiRNA), conjugated to a lipid nanoparticle, to mice after DDC diet and then weekly for 4 weeks. In all experiments, serum and livers were collected; livers were analyzed by histology, western blotting, and real-time PCR. Porphyrin was measured by fluorescence, quantification of polarized light images, and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry.


      DDC-fed mice lacking β-catenin or Wnt signaling had decreased liver injury compared to controls. Exogenous mice that underwent β-catenin suppression by DsiRNA during DDC feeding also showed less injury compared to control mice receiving lipid nanoparticles. Control livers contained extensive porphyrin deposits which were largely absent in mice lacking β-catenin signaling. Notably, we identified a network of key heme biosynthesis enzymes that are suppressed in the absence of β-catenin, preventing accumulation of toxic protoporphyrins. Additionally, mice lacking β-catenin exhibited fewer protein aggregates, improved proteasomal activity, and reduced induction of autophagy, all contributing to protection from injury.


      β-Catenin inhibition, through its pleiotropic effects on metabolism, cell stress, and autophagy, represents a novel therapeutic approach for patients with porphyria.

      Lay summary

      Porphyrias are disorders resulting from abnormalities in the steps that lead to heme production, which cause build-up of toxic by-products called porphyrins. Liver is commonly either a source or a target of excess porphyrins, and complications can range from minor abnormalities to liver failure. In this report, we inhibited Wnt/β-catenin signaling in an experimental model of porphyria, which resulted in decreased liver injury. Targeting β-catenin affected multiple components of the heme biosynthesis pathway, thus preventing build-up of porphyrin intermediates. Our study suggests that drugs inhibiting β-catenin activity could reduce the amount of porphyrin accumulation and help alleviate symptoms in patients with porphyria.

      Graphical abstract


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      Author names in bold designate shared co-first authorship

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