Changes in RNA could protect against liver disease, study finds

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A new study shows how RNA modifications could offer protection against fatty liver disease. The research also offers a possible explanation for why females tend to have higher liver fat.

UCLA researchers found these changes can occur as the RNA molecules carrying DNA’s genetic instructions to cells’ protein-making machinery undergo a chemical change. This change seems to affect how fat is stored in the liver.

According to Healthline, a fatty liver can develop when the body produces too much fat or isn’t efficient enough in metabolizing fat. Liver cells store the excess fat, which can develop into fatty liver disease.

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Scientists have pinpointed chemical changes, such as the m6A modification, that happen in RNA molecules. These changes alter the instructions RNA provides to make proteins. While these changes
do not affect DNA, some modifications, such as those related to liver disease, can be beneficial.

The findings were published this week in the journal Nature Metabolism, and show that the change may occur at a different rate in females than in males. That could offer a possible explanation of the sexes’ differences in liver fat levels. Without the change, researchers noticed differences in the sexes’ liver fat was drastically reduced.

Investigators also showed in a preclinical study that gene therapy can be used to enhance or add modifications to key RNAs. This might reduce the severity of liver disease.

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In the study, researchers used mice missing the m6A RNA modifications in the liver and a control model that included the modifications. They compared the effects of diets with differing fat contents to evaluate how the changes affected fatty liver disease. They also used measurements from human patients who had undergone liver biopsies during bariatric surgery. They used this to compare markers of m6A RNA modifications with liver fat content and inflammation.

“A key question moving forward is how genetic and environmental factors affect the body’s natural ability to create RNA modifications,” a news release said.

“Because m6A appears to act as a protective checkpoint that slows the accumulation of fat in the liver, the investigators hope their findings will spur future research on the development of therapies to enhance chemical modifications as a way to protect against liver disease and similar disorders.”