Background: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterized by abnormal extracellular matrix (ECM) turnover. Recently, activation of the WNT/β-catenin pathway has been associated with abnormal ECM turnover in various chronic diseases. We determined WNT-pathway gene expression in pulmonary fibroblasts of individuals with and without COPD and disentangled the role of β-catenin in fibroblast phenotype and function.
Methods: We assessed the expression of WNT-pathway genes and the functional role of β-catenin, using MRC-5 human lung fibroblasts and primary pulmonary fibroblasts of individuals with and without COPD.
Results: Pulmonary fibroblasts expressed mRNA of genes required for WNT signaling. Stimulation of fibroblasts with TGF-β₁, a growth factor important in COPD pathogenesis, induced WNT-5B, FZD₈, DVL3 and β-catenin mRNA expression. The induction of WNT-5B, FZD₆, FZD₈ and DVL3 mRNA by TGF-β₁ was higher in fibroblasts of individuals with COPD than without COPD, whilst basal expression was similar. Accordingly, TGF-β₁ activated β-catenin signaling, as shown by an increase in transcriptionally active and total β-catenin protein expression. Furthermore, TGF-β₁induced the expression of collagen1α1, α-sm-actin and fibronectin, which was attenuated by β-catenin specific siRNA and by pharmacological inhibition of β-catenin, whereas the TGF-β₁-induced expression of PAI-1 was not affected. The induction of transcriptionally active β-catenin and subsequent fibronectin deposition induced by TGF-β₁ were enhanced in pulmonary fibroblasts from individuals with COPD.
Conclusions: β-catenin signaling contributes to ECM production by pulmonary fibroblasts and contributes to myofibroblasts differentiation. WNT/β-catenin pathway expression and activation by TGF-β₁ is enhanced in pulmonary fibroblasts from individuals with COPD. This suggests an important role of the WNT/β-catenin pathway in regulating fibroblast phenotype and function in COPD.