Proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (Pcsk9) binds to hepatic low-density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR) and induces its internalization and degradation. Pcsk9 inhibition increases LDLR expression by hepatocytes, which causes increased uptake of circulating LDL, thereby reducing plasma LDL-cholesterol. However, by increasing the uptake of LDL by the liver, Pcsk9 inhibition increases the exposure of the liver to cholesterol, which may result in higher risk of steatohepatitis and ever carcinogenesis. We compared Pcsk9-/- knockout (KO) mice and appropriate wild-type (WT) controls of the same strain assigned to a high-fat (15%, wt/wt) diet for 9 months supplemented with 0.25%, 0.5%, or 0.75% dietary cholesterol. Pcsk9 KO mice on a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet exhibited higher levels of hepatic free cholesterol loading and hepatic cholesterol crystallization than their WT counterparts. Pcsk9 KO mice developed crown-like structures of macrophages surrounding cholesterol crystal-containing lipid droplets and hepatocytes, exhibited higher levels of apoptosis, and developed significantly more hepatic inflammation and fibrosis consistent with fibrosing steatohepatitis, including 5-fold and 11-fold more fibrosis at 0.5% and 0.75% dietary cholesterol, respectively. When injected with diethylnitrosamine, a hepatic carcinogen, early-in-life Pcsk9 KO mice were more likely to develop liver cancer than WT mice. Conclusion: Pcsk9 KO mice on high-cholesterol diets developed increased hepatic free cholesterol and cholesterol crystals and fibrosing steatohepatitis with a higher predisposition to liver cancer compared with WT mice. Future studies should evaluate whether patients on long-term treatment with anti-PSCK9 monoclonal antibodies are at increased risk of hepatic steatosis, steatohepatitis or liver cancer, while accounting for concurrent use of statins.
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