July 9, 2019  Print

A new study from WIMR researchers Ratna Wijaya and Golo Ahlenstiel has demonstrated how immune cells protect the liver in patients with chronic hepatitis B, paving the way for the development of new therapies.

Researchers Professor Golo Ahlenstiel, Ratna Wijaya and Dr Scott Read. 

Researchers investigated the role of natural killer (NK) cells – a type of immune cell with potent antiviral functions – in the liver. Individuals with chronic hepatitis B have an increased number of NK cells expressing the receptor, killer cell lectin-like receptor subfamily G member 1 (KLRG1), in their blood and liver.

Senior researcher, Professor Golo Ahlenstiel said, “People with chronic hepatitis B infections experience chronic inflammation, which causes liver damage and scaring.

“Previous studies have not identified which subset of these cells could protect the liver from fibrosis (scarring).

“Our study is the first to demonstrate that NK cells that express KLRG1 can potentially prevent liver fibrosis by targeting activated stellate cells, the cells that form scar tissue in response to damage. 

 “Developing new treatments for liver fibrosis is crucial, as options are currently limited. In severe cases, untreated scarring can cause cirrhosis, which can ultimately lead to liver failure, a life-threatening condition.”

Hepatitis B is a virus that affects the liver. While some individuals clear the infection, others develop life-long infections. Currently, more than 257 million people are chronically infected worldwide.

“Chronic hepatitis B is a serious, long-term condition. Unfortunately, some people may not realise they are infected until symptoms start to develop,” Professor Ahlenstiel said.

“It’s important to treat the complications of chronic hepatitis B, including liver fibrosis, as early as possible to prevent further damage, such as liver failure, certain liver cancers, and cirrhosis.

“While more research is needed, our results indicate that NK cells that express KLRG1 in patients with chronic hepatitis B could aid in the treatment of liver fibrosis.”

The research was published in the Journal of Hepatology: 

Professor Golo Ahlenstiel is affiliated with The Westmead Institute for Medical Research, Western Sydney University and The Western Sydney Local Health District. 

Ratna Wijaya is a PhD student at The University of Sydney and The Westmead Institute for Medical Research. Ratna drove the research as part of her PhD project.