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Liver Lowdown


Research is integral to the mission of the American Liver Foundation and is essential to finding new ways to prevent, treat and cure liver disease. Supporting early-career scientists is critical to this effort.

In 2014, the American Liver Foundation provided funding to 11 early-career scientists from some of the nation’s leading academic institutions. These researchers are contributing to the knowledge of how liver diseases develop and progress. Their discoveries may one day go beyond the laboratories and into clinical practice, aiding in drug development and other interventions that will ensure the health of millions of Americans.


Davide Povero, PhD-Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, San Diego

Recipient of the:

Roger L. Jenkins, MD, Postdoctoral Research Fellowship

Obesity is a serious public health problem affecting more than two billion people worldwide. It is associated with multiple disorders including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and liver damage. And it is the main reason for the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which, over time, can severely damage the liver.

Dr. Povero and his colleagues focus on NAFLD, which can be present in the body in two ways: as non-alcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) in which liver cells, known as hepatocytes, accumulate excessive fat leading to cell toxicity. And a more severe type of liver disease called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), in which fat-induced toxicity is accompanied by inflammation, hepatocyte cell death and scarring of the liver.

Dr. Povero’s American Liver Foundation grant supports his research in two main aspects of this disease:

· Understanding the link between damaged hepatocytes due to excessive fat accumulation and other surrounding liver cells, namely hepatic stellate cells, which are responsible for the scarring of the liver; and

· Developing non-invasive and reliable tests for the early diagnosis of NASH.

In order to address these two areas, Dr. Povero is investigating the role that microparticles (MPs) play within the process. MPs are small particles that are released by hepatocytes (liver cells) due to fat-induced toxicity and have very diverse biological traits that can be transferred to a target cell and induce a variety of cellular responses. His team is looking at the role of MPs as effective cell-to-cell communicators involved in hepatic stellate cell activation, as well as their potential use as a diagnostic tool for early and advanced stage NASH.

What Dr. Povero hopes to achieve is to better understand the link between damaged or stressed, hepatocytes due to fat-induced toxicity and the activation of hepatic stellate cells during liver fibrosis. Liver fibrosis plays a crucial role in the progression from early stage NASH to the advanced and end stages of the disease. For this reason, understanding the mechanisms of fibrosis is one of the main goals in the quest to develop novel therapeutic tools for advanced NASH.

Key to developing any treatment is being able to create measurable indicators – known as biological markers or biomarkers -- circulating in the bloodstream that indicate that the disease has progressed. These indicators could be used to effectively diagnose the presence of NASH at the earliest possible stages and track whether treatment is effective.

Biomarkers for an accurate and early diagnosis of NASH are currently in great need. The majority of tests currently available for the diagnosis of this disease lack sensitivity and specificity.

On a basic research level, Dr. Povero’s work will allow for better understanding of the molecular pathogenesis of NASH, with a particular focus on liver fibrosis. On a translational level – meaning when research conducted in the lab has been shown to be effective and can now be applied in the clinical setting -- his research will have two main goals: to discover and develop novel, individualized and non-invasive biomarkers for an early and accurate diagnosis of NASH leading to personalized medicinal strategies; and to identify novel and potential therapeutic strategies for liver fibrosis.

NAFLD is one of the most common forms of chronic liver disease and occurs in approximately 30% of adults and 10% of children in Western countries. Patients with NAFLD can develop NASH. The diagnosis of NASH requires a liver biopsy, which is invasive, costly and associated with possible significant complications. There are no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved medications for NASH, though drugs are in development. Since obesity is a major risk factor, modifications in diet and exercise with the goal of at least a seven percent reduction in body weight is recommended.

Read more about nonalcoholic fatty liver disease here.

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Page updated: April 20th, 2015


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