Background: Fibroblastic foci are characteristic features in lung parenchyma of patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). They comprise aggregates of mesenchymal cells which underlie sites of unresolved epithelial injury and are associated with progression of fibrosis. However, the cellular origins of these mesenchymal phenotypes remain unclear. We examined whether the potent fibrogenic cytokine TGF-beta1 could induce epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT) in the human alveolar epithelial cell line, A549, and investigated the signaling pathway of TGF-beta1-mediated EMT.
Methods: A549 cells were examined for evidence of EMT after treatment with TGF-beta1. EMT was assessed by: morphology under phase-contrast microscopy; Western analysis of cell lysates for expression of mesenchymal phenotypic markers including fibronectin EDA (Fn-EDA), and expression of epithelial phenotypic markers including E-cadherin (E-cad). Markers of fibrogenesis, including collagens and connective tissue growth factor (CTGF) were also evaluated by measuring mRNA level using RT-PCR, and protein by immunofluorescence or Western blotting. Signaling pathways for EMT were characterized by Western analysis of cell lysates using monoclonal antibodies to detect phosphorylated Erk1/2 and Smad2 after TGF-beta1 treatment in the presence or absence of MEK inhibitors. The role of Smad2 in TGF-beta1-mediated EMT was investigated using siRNA.
Results: The data showed that TGF-beta1, but not TNF-alpha or IL-1beta, induced A549 cells with an alveolar epithelial type II cell phenotype to undergo EMT in a time-and concentration-dependent manner. The process of EMT was accompanied by morphological alteration and expression of the fibroblast phenotypic markers Fn-EDA and vimentin, concomitant with a downregulation of the epithelial phenotype marker E-cad. Furthermore, cells that had undergone EMT showed enhanced expression of markers of fibrogenesis including collagens type I and III and CTGF. MMP-2 expression was also evidenced. TGF-beta1-induced EMT occurred through phosphorylation of Smad2 and was inhibited by Smad2 gene silencing; MEK inhibitors failed to attenuate either EMT-associated Smad2 phosphorylation or the observed phenotypic changes.
Conclusion: Our study shows that TGF-beta1 induces A549 alveolar epithelial cells to undergo EMT via Smad2 activation. Our data support the concept of EMT in lung epithelial cells, and suggest the need for further studies to investigate the phenomenon.