Comprehensive Analysis of Fibroblast Activation Protein Expression in Interstitial Lung Diseases

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2023 Jan 15;207(2):160-172. doi: 10.1164/rccm.202110-2414OC.


Rationale: Sustained activation of lung fibroblasts and the resulting oversynthesis of the extracellular matrix are detrimental events for patients with interstitial lung diseases (ILDs). Lung biopsy is a primary evaluation technique for the fibrotic status of ILDs, and is also a major risk factor for triggering acute deterioration. Fibroblast activation protein (FAP) is a long-known surface biomarker of activated fibroblasts, but its expression pattern and diagnostic implications in ILDs are poorly defined. Objectives: The present study aims to comprehensively investigate whether the expression intensity of FAP could be used as a potential readout to estimate or measure the amounts of activated fibroblasts in ILD lungs quantitatively. Methods: FAP expression in human primary lung fibroblasts as well as in clinical lung specimens was first tested using multiple experimental methods, including real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR), Western blot, immunofluorescence staining, deep learning measurement of whole slide immunohistochemistry, as well as single-cell sequencing. In addition, FAP-targeted positron emission tomography/computed tomography imaging PET/CT was applied to various types of patients with ILD, and the correlation between the uptake of FAP tracer and pulmonary function parameters was analyzed. Measurements and Main Results: Here, it was revealed, for the first time, FAP expression was upregulated significantly in the early phase of lung fibroblast activation event in response to a low dose of profibrotic cytokine. Single-cell sequencing data further indicate that nearly all FAP-positive cells in ILD lungs were collagen-producing fibroblasts. Immunohistochemical analysis validated that FAP expression level was closely correlated with the abundance of fibroblastic foci on human lung biopsy sections from patients with ILDs. We found that the total standard uptake value (SUV) of FAP inhibitor (FAPI) PET (SUVtotal) was significantly related to lung function decline in patients with ILD. Conclusions: Our results strongly support that in vitro and in vivo detection of FAP can assess the profibrotic activity of ILDs, which may aid in early diagnosis and the selection of an appropriate therapeutic window.

Keywords: fibroblast activation protein; idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis; interstitial lung diseases; positron emission tomography/computed tomography.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Fibrosis
  • Humans
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung Diseases, Interstitial* / pathology
  • Positron Emission Tomography Computed Tomography*