Preventing an Epidemic of Future Liver Disease is Focus of Colorado State University Research

Obesity in the United States is at epidemic proportions, affecting both children and adults. One of the newest complications associated with obesity could potentially cause a significant number of today’s children to live with liver disease as adults – some needing transplants to survive.

Through a $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Mike Pagliassotti, professor and Lillian Fountain Smith Endowed Chair in Nutrition at Colorado State University, is studying hepatic steatosis (fatty liver), the earliest and most prevalent stage of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD.

Since it is not known why some individuals with fatty liver disease are at increased risk for liver damage and some are not, Pagliassotti will focus on why only a portion of individuals with steatosis develop progressive injury. By obtaining liver tissue from obese patients undergoing elective surgery, Pagliassotti has been able to analyze liver cells and determine that those with a higher concentration of saturated fatty acids have more liver damage. With his new grant, he hopes to understand how saturated fatty acids in the liver lead to increase liver cell injury.

"The prevalence of NAFLD may be a high as 75 percent in obese adults, 50 percent in obese children, and 20 percent in the general population," Pagliassotti said. "Up to a third of these individuals will likely experience progressive liver damage. NAFLD is currently the most common cause of chronic liver injury in adults as well as a leading cause of cirrhosis. Understanding the events that lead to liver injury in NAFLD and the reasons for progression from a fatty liver to liver injury are critical to our understanding of the consequences of obesity and type 2 diabetes."

Pagliassotti has spent the last 11 years of his career investigating how simple sugars, in particular fructose, affect the liver and the ability of the liver to regulate the blood glucose level. "Fructose is a unique nutrient because it is primarily metabolized by the liver. One potential consequence of consumption of large amounts of fructose is the development of a fatty liver," he said.

Also funded by NIH, Pagliassotti’s fructose research grant was recently extended for another four years at $1.1 million.

Pagliassotti served as program chair for Colorado State’s Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Colloquium held on April 13-14.