A perpetual cascade of cytokines postirradiation leads to pulmonary fibrosis

Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 1995 Aug 30;33(1):99-109. doi: 10.1016/0360-3016(95)00095-G.


Purpose: Radiation-induced pulmonary reactions have classically been viewed as distinct phases--acute pneumonitis and, later, fibrosis--occurring at different times after irradiation and attributed to different target cell populations. We prefer to view these events as a continuum, with no clear distinction between the temporal sequence of the different pulmonary reactions; the progression is the result of an early activation of an inflammatory reaction, leading to the expression and maintenance of a cytokine cascade. In the current study, we have examined the temporal and spatial expression of cytokine and extracellular matrix messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) abundance in fibrosis-sensitive mice after thoracic irradiation.

Methods and materials: Radiation fibrosis-prone (C57BL/6) mice received thoracic irradiation of 5 and 12.5 Gy. At Day 1, and 1, 2, 8, 16, and 24 weeks after treatment, animals were killed and lung tissue processed for light microscopy and isolation of RNA. Expression of cytokine and extracellular matrix mRNA abundance was evaluated by slot-blot analysis and cellular localization by in situ hybridization and immunochemistry.

Results: One of the cytokines responsible for the inflammatory phase (IL-1 alpha) is elevated at 2 weeks, returns to normal baseline values, then increases at 8 weeks, remaining elevated until 26 weeks when lung fibrosis appears. Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF beta), a proliferative cytokine, is elevated at 2 weeks, persists until 8 weeks, and then returns to baseline values. In parallel with the cytokine cascade, the fibrogenic markers for CI/CIII/IV (collagen genes) correlate by showing a similar early and then later elevation of activity. For instance, the collagen gene expression of CI/CIII is a biphasic response with an initial increase at 1-2 weeks that remits at 8 weeks, remains inactive from 8 to 16 weeks, and then becomes elevated at 6 months when collagen deposition is recognized histopathologically.

Conclusion: These studies clearly demonstrate the early and persistent elevation of cytokine production following pulmonary irradiation. The temporal relationship between the elevation of specific cytokines and the histological and biochemical evidence of fibrosis serves to illustrate the continuum of response, which, we believe, underlies pulmonary radiation reactions and supports the concept of a perpetual cascade of cytokines produced immediately after irradiation, prompting collagen genes to turn on, and persisting until the expression of late effects becomes apparent pathologically and clinically.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Collagen / biosynthesis
  • Cytokines / biosynthesis*
  • Female
  • Fibronectins / biosynthesis
  • Interleukin-1 / biosynthesis
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Lung / radiation effects*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Platelet-Derived Growth Factor / biosynthesis
  • Radiation Dosage
  • Radiation Pneumonitis / etiology*
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / biosynthesis


  • Cytokines
  • Fibronectins
  • Interleukin-1
  • Platelet-Derived Growth Factor
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta
  • Collagen