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Asthma is the most common chronic lung disease in children and young adults worldwide. Airway remodelling (including increased fibroblasts and myofibroblasts in airway walls due to chronic inflammation) differentiates asthmatic from non-asthmatic airways. The increase in airway fibroblasts and myofibroblasts occurs via epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) where epithelial cells lose their tight junctions and are transdifferentiated to mesenchymal cells, with further increases in myofibroblasts occurring via fibroblast-myofibroblast transition (FMT). Transforming growth factor (TGF)-β is the central EMT- and FMT-inducing cytokine. In this study, we have used next generation sequencing to delineate the changes in the transcriptome induced by TGF-β treatment of WI-38 airway fibroblasts in both the short term and after differentiation into myofibroblasts, to gain an understanding of the contribution of TGF-β induced transdifferentiation to the asthmatic phenotype. The data obtained from RNAseq analysis was confirmed by quantitative PCR (qPCR) and protein expression investigated by western blotting. As expected, we found that genes coding for intermediates in the TGF-β signalling pathways (SMADs) were differentially expressed after TGF-β treatment, SMAD2 being upregulated and SMAD3 being downregulated as expected. Further, genes involved in cytoskeletal pathways (FN1, LAMA, ITGB1) were upregulated in myofibroblasts compared to fibroblasts. Importantly, genes that were previously shown to be changed in asthmatic lungs (ADAMTS1, DSP, TIMPs, MMPs) were similarly differentially expressed in myofibroblasts, strongly suggesting that TGF-β mediated differentiation of fibroblasts to myofibroblasts may underlie important changes in the asthmatic airway. We also identified new intermediates of signalling pathways (PKB, PTEN) that are changed in myofibroblasts compared to fibroblasts. We have found a significant number of genes that are altered after TGF-β induced transdifferentiation of WI-38 fibroblasts into myofibroblasts, many of which were expected or predicted. We also identified novel genes and pathways that were affected after TGF-β treatment, suggesting additional pathways are activated during the transition between fibroblasts and myofibroblasts and may contribute to the asthma phenotype.
Walker, E. J., Heydet, D., Veldre, T., & Ghildyal, R. (2019). Transcriptomic changes during TGF-β-mediated differentiation of airway fibroblasts to myofibroblasts. Scientific Reports, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-56955-1