Niemann–Pick type C (NPC) disease is a neuro-visceral cholesterol storage disorder caused by mutations in the NPC-1 or NPC-2 gene. In the present paper, we studied IR (insulin receptor) activation and the plasma-membrane lipid assembly in primary hepatocytes from control and NPC1–/– mice. We have previously reported that, in hepatocytes, IR activation is dependent on cholesterol–sphingolipid rafts [Vainio, Heino, Mansson, Fredman, Kuismanen, Vaarala and Ikonen (2002) EMBO Rep. 3, 95–100]. We found that, in NPC hepatocytes, IR levels were up-regulated and the receptor activation was compromised. Defective IR activation was reproduced in isolated NPC plasma-membrane preparations, which displayed an increased cholesterol content and saturation of major phospholipids. The NPC plasma membranes were less fluid than control membranes as indicated by increased DPH (1,6-diphenyl-1,3,5-hexatriene) fluorescence anisotropy values. Both in NPC hepatocytes and plasma-membrane fractions, the association of IR with low-density DRMs (detergent-resistant membranes) was increased. Moreover, the detergent resistance of both cholesterol and phosphatidylcholine were increased in NPC membranes. Finally, cholesterol removal inhibited IR activation in control membranes but restored IR activation in NPC membranes. Taken together, the results reveal a lipid imbalance in the NPC hepatocyte, which increases lipid ordering in the plasma membrane, alters the properties of lipid rafts and interferes with the function of a raft-associated plasma-membrane receptor. Such a mechanism may participate in the pathogenesis of NPC disease and contribute to insulin resistance in other disorders of lipid metabolism.

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