Rationale: Nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2), an important regulator of lung antioxidant defenses, declines in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, Nrf2 also regulates the proteasome system that degrades damaged and misfolded proteins. Because accumulation of misfolded proteins in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) causes ER stress and ER stress-induced apoptosis, Nrf2 may potentially prevent ER stress-mediated apoptosis in COPD.
Objectives: To determine whether Nrf2-regulated proteasome function affects ER stress-mediated apoptosis in COPD.
Methods: We assessed the expression of Nrf2, Nrf2-dependent proteasomal subunits, proteasomal activity, markers of ER stress, and apoptosis in emphysematous lungs of mice exposed to cigarette smoke (CS) as well as peripheral lung tissues from normal control subjects and patients with COPD.
Measurements and main results: Compared with wild-type mice, emphysematous lungs of CS-exposed Nrf2-deficient mice exhibited markedly lower proteasomal activity and elevated markers of ER stress and apoptosis. Furthermore, compared with normal control subjects, lungs of patients with mild and advanced COPD showed a marked decrease in the expression of Nrf2-regulated proteasomal subunits and total proteasomal activity. However, they were associated with greater levels of ER stress and apoptosis markers. In vitro studies have demonstrated that enhancing proteasomal activity in Beas2B cells either by sulforaphane, an activator of Nrf2, or overexpression of Nrf2-regulated proteasomal subunit PSMB6, significantly inhibited cigarette smoke condensate (CSC)-induced ER stress and cell death.
Conclusions: Impaired Nrf2 signaling causes significant decline in proteasomal activity and heightens ER stress response in lungs of patients with COPD and CS-exposed mice. Accordingly, pharmacological approaches that augment Nrf2 activity may protect against COPD progression by both up-regulating antioxidant defenses and relieving ER stress.