Rare ATG7 genetic variants predispose patients to severe fatty liver disease

EPIDEMIC Study Investigators

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Background & Aims: Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the leading cause of liver disorders and has a strong heritable component. The aim of this study was to identify new loci that contribute to severe NAFLD by examining rare variants. Methods: We performed whole-exome sequencing in individuals with NAFLD and advanced fibrosis or hepatocellular carcinoma (n = 301) and examined the enrichment of likely pathogenic rare variants vs. the general population. This was followed by validation at the gene level. Results: In patients with severe NAFLD, we observed an enrichment of the p.P426L variant (rs143545741 C>T; OR 5.26, 95% CI 2.1-12.6; p = 0.003) of autophagy-related 7 (ATG7), which we characterized as a loss-of-function, vs. the general population, and an enrichment in rare variants affecting the catalytic domain (OR 13.9; 95% CI 1.9-612; p = 0.002). In the UK Biobank cohort, loss-of-function ATG7 variants increased the risk of cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (OR 3.30; 95% CI 1.1-7.5 and OR 12.30, 95% CI 2.6-36, respectively; p <0.001 for both). The low-frequency loss-of-function p.V471A variant (rs36117895 T>C) was also associated with severe NAFLD in the clinical cohort (OR 1.7; 95% CI 1.2-2.5; p = 0.003), predisposed to hepatocellular ballooning (p = 0.007) evolving to fibrosis in a Liver biopsy cohort (n = 2,268), and was associated with liver injury in the UK Biobank (aspartate aminotransferase levels, p <0.001), with a larger effect in severely obese individuals in whom it was linked to hepatocellular carcinoma (p = 0.009). ATG7 protein localized to periportal hepatocytes, particularly in the presence of ballooning. In the Liver Transcriptomic cohort (n = 125), ATG7 expression correlated with suppression of the TNFα pathway, which was conversely upregulated in p.V471A carriers. Conclusions: We identified rare and low-frequency ATG7 loss-of-function variants that promote NAFLD progression by impairing autophagy and facilitating ballooning and inflammation. Lay summary: We found that rare mutations in a gene called autophagy-related 7 (ATG7) increase the risk of developing severe liver disease in individuals with dysmetabolism. These mutations cause an alteration in protein function and impairment of self-renewal of cellular content, leading to liver damage and inflammation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)596-606
JournalJournal of Hepatology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • autophagy
  • genetics
  • liver fibrosis
  • NASH

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hepatology


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