Regulation of progranulin expression in human microglia and proteolysis of progranulin by matrix metalloproteinase-12 (MMP-12)

PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e35115. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035115. Epub 2012 Apr 11.


Background: The essential role of progranulin (PGRN) as a neurotrophic factor has been demonstrated by the discovery that haploinsufficiency due to GRN gene mutations causes frontotemporal lobar dementia. In addition to neurons, microglia in vivo express PGRN, but little is known about the regulation of PGRN expression by microglia.

Goal: In the current study, we examined the regulation of expression and function of PGRN, its proteolytic enzyme macrophage elastase (MMP-12), as well as the inhibitor of PGRN proteolysis, secretory leukocyte protease inhibitor (SLPI), in human CNS cells.

Methods: Cultures of primary human microglia and astrocytes were stimulated with the TLR ligands (LPS or poly IC), Th1 cytokines (IL-1/IFNγ), or Th2 cytokines (IL-4, IL-13). Results were analyzed by Q-PCR, immunoblotting or ELISA. The roles of MMP-12 and SLPI in PGRN cleavage were also examined.

Results: Unstimulated microglia produced nanogram levels of PGRN, and PGRN release from microglia was suppressed by the TLR ligands or IL-1/IFNγ, but increased by IL-4 or IL-13. Unexpectedly, while astrocytes stimulated with proinflammatory factors released large amounts of SLPI, none were detected in microglial cultures. We also identified MMP-12 as a PGRN proteolytic enzyme, and SLPI as an inhibitor of MMP-12-induced PGRN proteolysis. Experiments employing PGRN siRNA demonstrated that microglial PGRN was involved in the cytokine and chemokine production following TLR3/4 activation, with its effect on TNFα being the most conspicuous.

Conclusions: Our study is the first detailed examination of PGRN in human microglia. Our results establish microglia as a significant source of PGRN, and MMP-12 and SLPI as modulators of PGRN proteolysis. Negative and positive regulation of microglial PGRN release by the proinflammatory/Th1 and the Th2 stimuli, respectively, suggests a fundamentally different aspect of PGRN regulation compared to other known microglial activation products. Microglial PGRN appears to function as an endogenous modulator of innate immune responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Astrocytes* / enzymology
  • Astrocytes* / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytokines / genetics
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / genetics
  • Intercellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / genetics
  • Intercellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / metabolism*
  • Matrix Metalloproteinase 12 / genetics
  • Matrix Metalloproteinase 12 / metabolism*
  • Microglia* / enzymology
  • Microglia* / metabolism
  • Progranulins
  • Proteolysis
  • RNA, Small Interfering
  • Secretory Leukocyte Peptidase Inhibitor / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction


  • Cytokines
  • GRN protein, human
  • Intercellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins
  • Progranulins
  • RNA, Small Interfering
  • Secretory Leukocyte Peptidase Inhibitor
  • Matrix Metalloproteinase 12