Transcriptomics of bronchoalveolar lavage cells identifies new molecular endotypes of sarcoidosis

Eur Respir J. 2021 Dec 2;58(6):2002950. doi: 10.1183/13993003.02950-2020. Print 2021 Dec.


Background: Sarcoidosis is a multisystem granulomatous disease of unknown origin with a variable and often unpredictable course and pattern of organ involvement. In this study we sought to identify specific bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) cell gene expression patterns indicative of distinct disease phenotypic traits.

Methods: RNA sequencing by Ion Torrent Proton was performed on BAL cells obtained from 215 well-characterised patients with pulmonary sarcoidosis enrolled in the multicentre Genomic Research in Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency and Sarcoidosis (GRADS) study. Weighted gene co-expression network analysis and nonparametric statistics were used to analyse genome-wide BAL transcriptome. Validation of results was performed using a microarray expression dataset of an independent sarcoidosis cohort (Freiburg, Germany; n=50).

Results: Our supervised analysis found associations between distinct transcriptional programmes and major pulmonary phenotypic manifestations of sarcoidosis including T-helper type 1 (Th1) and Th17 pathways associated with hilar lymphadenopathy, transforming growth factor-β1 (TGFB1) and mechanistic target of rapamycin (MTOR) signalling with parenchymal involvement, and interleukin (IL)-7 and IL-2 with airway involvement. Our unsupervised analysis revealed gene modules that uncovered four potential sarcoidosis endotypes including hilar lymphadenopathy with increased acute T-cell immune response; extraocular organ involvement with PI3K activation pathways; chronic and multiorgan disease with increased immune response pathways; and multiorgan involvement, with increased IL-1 and IL-18 immune and inflammatory responses. We validated the occurrence of these endotypes using gene expression, pulmonary function tests and cell differentials from Freiburg.

Conclusion: Taken together, our results identify BAL gene expression programmes that characterise major pulmonary sarcoidosis phenotypes and suggest the presence of distinct disease molecular endotypes.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage Fluid
  • Humans
  • Sarcoidosis*
  • Sarcoidosis, Pulmonary* / genetics
  • Transcriptome