The challenge facing many fibrotic lung diseases is that these conditions usually present late, often after several decades of repetitive alveolar epithelial injury, during which functional alveolar units are gradually obliterated and replaced with nonfunctional connective tissue. The resulting fibrosis is often progressive and, in the case of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), invariably leads to respiratory insufficiency and, ultimately, the premature death of affected individuals. Recent years have seen a greater appreciation of the relative importance of chronic inflammation as a driver of fibrotic responses. Current evidence suggests that IPF arises as a result of repetitive epithelial injury and a highly aberrant wound healing response in genetically susceptible and aged individuals. Nonspecific anti-inflammatory agents offer no clinical benefit, but the potential contribution of maladaptive immune responses in determining outcome is gaining increasing recognition. The importance of key differences in the tissue-regenerative potential in young versus aged individuals is also beginning to be more fully appreciated. Moreover, there is considerable overlap in the mechanisms underlying tissue repair and cancer, and patients with IPF are at heightened risk of developing lung cancer. Progressive fibrosis and cancer may therefore represent the extremes of a highly dysregulated tissue injury response. This brief review focuses on some of this evidence and on our current understanding of abnormal tissue repair responses after chronic epithelial injury in the specific context of IPF.
Keywords: cancer; idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis; lung injury; myofibroblast; pulmonary fibrosis.