Background & aims: Growth Differentiation Factor 11 (GDF11) is an anti-aging factor, yet its role in liver diseases is not established. We evaluated the role of GDF11 in healthy conditions and in the transition from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

Results: GDF11 mRNA levels positively correlated with NAFLD activity score and with CPT1, SREBP, PPARγ and Col1A1 mRNA levels, and associated to portal fibrosis, in morbidly obese patients with NAFLD/NASH. GDF11-treated mice showed mildly exacerbated hepatic collagen deposition, accompanied by weight loss and without changes in liver steatosis or inflammation. GDF11 triggered ALK5-dependent SMAD2/3 nuclear translocation and the pro-fibrogenic activation of HSC.

Conclusions: GDF11 supplementation promotes mild liver fibrosis. Even considering its beneficial metabolic effects, caution should be taken when considering therapeutics that regulate GDF11.

Methods: We analyzed liver biopsies from a cohort of 33 morbidly obese adults with NAFLD/NASH. We determined the correlations in mRNA expression levels between GDF11 and genes involved in NAFLD-to-NASH progression and with pathological features. We also exposed wild type or obese mice with NAFLD to recombinant GDF11 by daily intra-peritoneal injection and monitor the hepatic pathological changes. Finally, we analyzed GDF11-activated signaling pathways in hepatic stellate cells (HSC).