MicroRNAs miR-122, miR-34a, miR-16 and miR-21 are commonly deregulated in liver fibrosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. This study examined whether circulating levels of these miRNAs correlate with hepatic histological disease severity in patients with chronic hepatitis C infection (CHC) or non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease (NAFLD) and can potentially serve as circulating markers for disease stage assessment. We first used an in vitro model of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection to measure the extracellular levels of these four miRNAs. Whereas miR-21 extracellular levels were unchanged, extracellular levels of miR-122, miR-34a and to a lesser extent miR-16, steadily increased during the course of HCV infection, independently of viral replication and production. Similarly, in CHC patients, serum levels of miR-122, miR-34a and miR-16 were significantly higher than in control individuals, while miR-21 levels were unchanged. There was no correlation between the serum levels of any of these microRNAs and HCV viral loads. In contrast, miR-122 and miR-34a levels positively correlated with disease severity. Identical results were obtained in an independent cohort of CHC patients. We extended the study to patients with NAFLD. As observed in CHC patients, serum levels of miR-122, miR-34a and miR-16 were significantly higher in NAFLD patients than in controls, while miR-21 levels were unchanged. Again, miR-122 and miR-34a levels positively correlated with disease severity from simple steatosis to steatohepatitis. In both CHC and NAFLD patient groups, serum levels of miR-122 and miR-34a correlated with liver enzymes levels, fibrosis stage and inflammation activity. miR-122 levels also correlated with serum lipids in NAFLD patients. Conclusion: Serum levels of miR-34a and miR-122 may represent novel, noninvasive biomarkers of diagnosis and histological disease severity in patients with CHC or NAFLD.
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