Background: The mechanisms underlying progressive renal fibrosis are unknown, but the common association of fibrosis and microvascular loss suggests that hypoxia per se may be a fibrogenic stimulus.
Methods: To determine whether human renal fibroblasts (HRFs), the primary matrix-producing cells in the tubulointerstitium, possess oxygen-sensitive responses relevant to fibrogenesis, cells were exposed to 1% O2 in vitro.
Results: Hypoxia simultaneously stimulated extracellular matrix synthesis and suppressed turnover with increased production of collagen alpha1(I) (Coll-I), decreased expression of collagenase, and increased tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase (TIMP)-1. These effects are time dependent, require new RNA and protein synthesis, and are specific to hypoxia. The changes in Coll-I and TIMP-1 gene expression involve a heme-protein O2 sensor and protein kinase- and tyrosine kinase-mediated signaling. Although hypoxia induced transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1), neutralizing anti-TGF-beta1-antibody did not block hypoxia-induced Coll-I and TIMP-1 mRNA expression. Furthermore, hypoxic-cell conditioned-medium had no effect on the expression of these mRNAs in naive fibroblasts, suggesting direct effects on gene transcription. Transient transfections identified a hypoxia response element (HRE) in the TIMP-1 promoter and demonstrated HIF-1-dependent promoter activation by decreased ambient pO2.
Conclusions: These data suggest that hypoxia co-ordinately up-regulates matrix production and decreases turnover in renal fibroblasts. The results support a role for hypoxia in the pathogenesis of fibrosis and provide evidence for novel, direct hypoxic effects on the expression of genes involved in fibrogenesis.