Sterol O-acyltransferase (SOAT/ACAT) activity is required to form cholesterol crystals in hepatocyte lipid droplets

Published: 15 May 2024| Version 1 | DOI: 10.17632/b38ggxb7zz.1
Scott Widenmaier


Objective: Excess cholesterol storage can induce the formation of cholesterol crystals in hepatocyte lipid droplets. Such crystals distinguish metabolic dysfunction associated steatohepatitis (MASH) from simple steatosis and may underlie its pathogenesis by causing cell damage that triggers liver inflammation. The mechanism linking cholesterol excess to its crystallization in lipid droplets is unclear. As cholesteryl esters localize to and accumulate in lipid droplets more readily than unesterified free cholesterol, we investigated whether cholesterol esterification by sterol O-acyltransferase (SOAT), also known as acyl co-A cholesterol acyltransferase (ACAT), is required for hepatocyte lipid droplet crystal formation. Method: Cholesterol crystals were measured in cholesterol loaded Hep3B hepatocytes, RAW264.7 macrophages, and mouse liver using polarizing light microscopy. We examined the effect of blocking SOAT activity on crystal formation and compared these results to features of cholesterol metabolism and the progression to intracellular crystal deposits. Results: Cholesterol loading of Hep3B cells caused robust levels of lipid droplet localized crystal formation in a dose- and time-dependent manner. Co-treatment with SOAT inhibitors and genetic ablation of SOAT1 blocked crystal formation. SOAT inhibitor also blocked crystal formation in low density lipoprotein (LDL) treated Hep3B cells, acetylated LDL treated RAW 264.7 macrophages, and in the liver of mice genetically predisposed to hepatic cholesterol overload and in mice with cholesterol enriched diet-induced MASH. Conclusion: SOAT1-mediated esterification may underlie cholesterol crystals associated with MASH by concentrating it in lipid droplets. These findings imply that inhibiting hepatocyte SOAT1 may be able to alleviate cholesterol associated MASH. Moreover, that either a lipid droplet localized cholesteryl ester hydrolase is required for cholesterol crystal formation, or the crystals are composed of cholesteryl ester.



Cholesterol, Liver, Metabolism


Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada