Our recent genome-wide association study found that the NELFCD/CTSZ locus was significantly associated with progression of primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) to jaundice stage in the Japanese population. In this study, we investigated the role of cathepsin Z in the etiology and pathology of PBC. Serum cathepsin Z levels were measured using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The expression and localization of cathepsin Z in liver specimens were analyzed by western blotting and immunohistochemistry. In PBC patients, serum cathepsin Z levels were significantly increased with disease progression. In addition, its levels were positively correlated with alanine transaminase, aspartate transaminase and total bilirubin, and were negatively correlated with platelet count and albumin. Cathepsin Z expression was markedly increased in hepatocytes at later stages of PBC, and its localization was altered from the peri-bile canaliculus to the cytoplasm, where a fraction was no longer colocalized with endosomal/lysosomal vesicles. Similar altered expression of cathepsin Z was observed in end-stage of other cholestatic liver diseases including sepsis, obstructive jaundice, and Alagille syndrome. Our results indicate that altered expression and localization of cathepsin Z in hepatocytes are characteristic features of PBC and other cholestatic liver diseases, and are implicated in the progression of PBC.
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