Background: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a heterogeneous disease characterized by varying degrees of emphysematous lung destruction and small airway disease, each with distinct effects on clinical outcomes. There is little known about how microRNAs contribute specifically to the emphysema phenotype. We examined how genome-wide microRNA expression is altered with regional emphysema severity and how these microRNAs regulate disease-associated gene expression networks.
Methods: We profiled microRNAs in different regions of the lung with varying degrees of emphysema from 6 smokers with COPD and 2 controls (8 regions × 8 lungs = 64 samples). Regional emphysema severity was quantified by mean linear intercept. Whole genome microRNA and gene expression data were integrated in the same samples to build co-expression networks. Candidate microRNAs were perturbed in human lung fibroblasts in order to validate these networks.
Results: The expression levels of 63 microRNAs (P < 0.05) were altered with regional emphysema. A subset, including miR-638, miR-30c, and miR-181d, had expression levels that were associated with those of their predicted mRNA targets. Genes correlated with these microRNAs were enriched in pathways associated with emphysema pathophysiology (for example, oxidative stress and accelerated aging). Inhibition of miR-638 expression in lung fibroblasts led to modulation of these same emphysema-related pathways. Gene targets of miR-638 in these pathways were amongst those negatively correlated with miR-638 expression in emphysema.
Conclusions: Our findings demonstrate that microRNAs are altered with regional emphysema severity and modulate disease-associated gene expression networks. Furthermore, miR-638 may regulate gene expression pathways related to the oxidative stress response and aging in emphysematous lung tissue and lung fibroblasts.