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OBJECTIVES: Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is the most severe form of a hepatic condition known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NASH is histologically characterized by hepatic fat accumulation, inflammation, and ballooning, and eventually coupled with fibrosis that, in turn, may progress to end-stage liver disease even in young individuals. Hence, there is a critical need for specific noninvasive markers to predict hepatic inflammation at an early age. We investigated whether plasma levels of cathepsin D (CatD), a lysosomal protease, correlated with the severity of liver inflammation in pediatric NAFLD. METHODS: Liver biopsies from children (n=96) with NAFLD were histologically evaluated according to the criteria of Kleiner (NAFLD activity score) and the Brunt's criteria. At the time of liver biopsy, blood was taken and levels of CatD, alanine aminotransferase (ALT), and cytokeratin-18 (CK-18) were measured in plasma. RESULTS: Plasma CatD levels were significantly lower in subjects with liver inflammation compared with steatotic subjects. Furthermore, we found that CatD levels were gradually reduced and corresponded with increasing severity of liver inflammation, steatosis, hepatocellular ballooning, and NAFLD activity score. CatD levels correlated with pediatric NAFLD disease progression better than ALT and CK-18. In particular, CatD showed a high diagnostic accuracy (area under receiver operating characteristic curve (ROC-AUC): 0.94) for the differentiation between steatosis and hepatic inflammation, and reached almost the maximum accuracy (ROC-AUC: 0.998) upon the addition of CK-18. CONCLUSIONS: Plasma CatD holds a high diagnostic value to distinguish pediatric patients with hepatic inflammation from children with steatosis.