NRF2 activates growth factor genes and downstream AKT signaling to induce mouse and human hepatomegaly

Feng He, Laura Antonucci, Shinichiro Yamachika, Zechuan Zhang, Koji Taniguchi, Atsushi Umemura, Georgia Hatzivassiliou, Merone Roose-Girma, Miguel Reina-Campos, Angeles Duran, Maria T. Diaz-Meco, Jorge Moscat, Beicheng Sun, Michael Karin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Citations (Scopus)


Background & Aims: Hepatomegaly can be triggered by insulin and insulin-unrelated etiologies. Insulin acts via AKT, but how other challenges cause hepatomegaly is unknown. Methods: Since many hepatomegaly-inducing toxicants and stressors activate NRF2, we examined the effect of NRF2 activation on liver size and metabolism using a conditional allele encoding a constitutively active NRF2 variant to generate Nrf2Act-hep mice in which NRF2 is selectively activated in hepatocytes. We also used adenoviruses encoding variants of the autophagy adaptor p62/SQSTM1, which activates liver NRF2, as well as liver-specific ATG7-deficient mice (Atg7Δhep) and liver specimens from patients with hepatic sinusoidal obstruction syndrome (HSOS) and autoimmune hepatitis (AIH). RNA sequencing and cell signaling analyses were used to determine cellular consequences of NRF2 activation and diverse histological analyses were used to study effects of the different manipulations on liver and systemic pathophysiology. Results: Hepatocyte-specific NRF2 activation, due to p62 accumulation or inhibition of KEAP1 binding, led to hepatomegaly associated with enhanced glycogenosis, steatosis and G2/M cell cycle arrest, fostering hyperplasia without cell division. Surprisingly, all manipulations that led to NRF2 activation also activated AKT, whose inhibition blocked NRF2-induced hepatomegaly and glycogenosis, but not NRF2-dependent antioxidant gene induction. AKT activation was linked to NRF2-mediated transcriptional induction of PDGF and EGF receptor ligands that signaled through their cognate receptors in an autocrine manner. Insulin and insulin-like growth factors were not involved. The NRF2-AKT signaling axis was also activated in human HSOS- and AIH-related hepatomegaly. Conclusions: NRF2, a transcription factor readily activated by xenobiotics, oxidative stress and autophagy disruptors, may be a common mediator of hepatomegaly; its effects on hepatic metabolism can be reversed by AKT/tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Lay summary: Hepatomegaly can be triggered by numerous etiological factors, including infections, liver cancer, metabolic disturbances, toxicant exposure, as well as alcohol abuse or drug-induced hepatitis. This study identified the oxidative stress response transcription factor NRF2 as a common mediator of hepatomegaly. NRF2 activation results in elevated expression of several growth factors. These growth factors are made by hepatocytes and activate their receptors in an autocrine fashion to stimulate the accumulation of glycogen and lipids that lead to hepatocyte and liver enlargement. The protein kinase AKT plays a key role in this process and its inhibition leads to reversal of hepatomegaly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1182-1195
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Hepatology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2020 Jun


  • AKT
  • Autophagy
  • EGFR
  • HSOS
  • Hepatomegaly
  • NRF2
  • p62/SQSTM1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hepatology


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