Persistent fibrosis in multiple organs is the hallmark of systemic sclerosis (SSc). Recent genetic and genomic studies implicate TLRs and their damage-associated molecular pattern (DAMP) endogenous ligands in fibrosis. To test the hypothesis that TLR4 and its coreceptor myeloid differentiation 2 (MD2) drive fibrosis persistence, we measured MD2/TLR4 signaling in tissues from patients with fibrotic SSc, and we examined the impact of MD2 targeting using a potentially novel small molecule. Levels of MD2 and TLR4, and a TLR4-responsive gene signature, were enhanced in SSc skin biopsies. We developed a small molecule that selectively blocks MD2, which is uniquely required for TLR4 signaling. Targeting MD2/TLR4 abrogated inducible and constitutive myofibroblast transformation and matrix remodeling in fibroblast monolayers, as well as in 3-D scleroderma skin equivalents and human skin explants. Moreover, the selective TLR4 inhibitor prevented organ fibrosis in several preclinical disease models and mouse strains, and it reversed preexisting fibrosis. Fibroblast-specific deletion of TLR4 in mice afforded substantial protection from skin and lung fibrosis. By comparing experimentally generated fibroblast TLR4 gene signatures with SSc skin biopsy gene expression datasets, we identified a subset of SSc patients displaying an activated TLR4 signature. Together, results from these human and mouse studies implicate MD2/TLR4-dependent fibroblast activation as a key driver of persistent organ fibrosis. The results suggest that SSc patients with high TLR4 activity might show optimal therapeutic response to selective inhibitors of MD2/TLR4 complex formation.
Keywords: Autoimmunity; Collagens; Fibrosis; Pulmonology.