The detrimental role of hepatic lipotoxicity has been well-implicated in the pathogenesis of NAFLD. Previously, we reported that inhibiting autophagy aggravated saturated fatty acid (SFA)-induced hepatotoxicity. Insulin, a physiological inhibitor of autophagy, is commonly increased within NAFLD mainly caused by insulin resistance. We therefore hypothesized that insulin augments the sensitivity of hepatocyte to SFA-induced lipotoxicity. The present study was conducted via employing human and mouse hepatocytes, which were exposed to SFAs, insulin, or their combination. Unexpectedly, our results indicated that insulin protected hepatocytes against SFA-induced lipotoxicity, based on the LDH, MTT, and nuclear morphological measurements, and the detection from cleaved-Parp-1 and -caspase-3 expressions. We subsequently clarified that insulin led to a rapid and short-period inhibition of autophagy, which was gradually recovered after 1 h incubation in hepatocytes, and such extent of inhibition was insufficient to aggravate SFA-induced lipotoxicity. The mechanistic study revealed that insulin-induced alleviation of ER stress contributed to its hepatoprotective role. Pre-treating hepatocytes with insulin significantly stimulated phosphorylated-Akt and reversed SFA-induced up-regulation of p53. Chemical inhibition of p53 by pifithrin-α robustly prevented palmitate-induced cell death. The PI3K/Akt pathway blockade by its special antagonist abolished the protective role of insulin against SFA-induced lipotoxicity and p53 up-regulation. Furthermore, we observed that insulin promoted intracellular TG deposits in hepatocytes in the present of palmitate. However, blocking TG accumulation via genetically silencing DGAT-2 did not prevent insulin-protected lipotoxicity. Our study demonstrated that insulin strongly protected against SFA-induced lipotoxicity in hepatocytes mechanistically through alleviating ER stress via a PI3K/Akt/p53 involved pathway but independently from autophagy.
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