A range of factors can contribute to fatty liver disease, including excessive alcohol consumption, but a prime player is obesity. In fact, 64 million people in the US alone have so-called non-alcoholic-liver disease, according to the University of Rochester (UR). But its scientists have discovered a new potential treatment option, in the form of a drug that protected mice from one of the complications of the condition in early testing.

Fatty liver disease occurs when excessive fat builds up in the liver cells, more than the person's body can handle. This makes the liver more vulnerable to injury, inflammation and scarring, and at the serious end of the scale, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

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One of the mechanisms behind the onset of non-alcoholic-liver disease is the immune response to inflammation. When things flare up, the body reacts by sending immune cells to the liver to quell the threat, but sometimes this response spirals out of control, actually creating more inflammation and further damaging the liver.

Western-style diets that are heavy on burgers, milkshakes and other sugar and fat-rich goodies are considered a big factor in the rising number of obese US adults, which currently sits at more than one third of the population, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So the scientists replicated this style of diet on mice over a period of six weeks and then treated half the group with a placebo and half with an experimental drug called URMC-099, which was originally developed to treat neurological disorders. The team reports that the drug was well tolerated by the mice, and that it resulted in less immune-related inflammation and injury.

"URMC-099 seems to break this vicious cycle of persistent inflammation by restoring balance between immune cells and liver cells," said Harris Gelbard, professor and director of the Center for Neurotherapeutics Discovery at UR. "The drug's ability to turn down the volume on the immune response allows the liver to regain its normal functions."

From here, the team has hopes of carrying out further testing and then moving onto early phase human trials.

The research was published in the journal JCI Insights.

Source: University of Rochester