Novel approaches are needed to define subgroups of patients with Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) at risk for acute exacerbations and/or accelerated progression of this generally fatal disease. Progression of disease is an integral component of IPF with a median survival of 3 to 5 years. Conversely, a high degree of variability in disease progression has been reported among series. The characteristics of patients at risk of earlier death predominantly rely on baseline HRCT appearance, but this concept that has been challenged. Disparate physiological approaches have also been taken to identify patients at risk of mortality, with varying results. We hypothesized that the rapid decline in lung function in IPF may be a consequence of an abnormal host response to pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs), leading to aberrant activation in fibroblasts and fibrosis. Analysis of upper and lower lobe surgical lung biopsies (SLBs) indicated that TLR9, a hypomethylated CpG DNA receptor, is prominently expressed at the transcript and protein level, most notably in biopsies from rapidly progressive IPF patients. Surprisingly, fibroblasts appeared to be a major cellular source of TLR9 expression in IPF biopsies from this group of progressors. Further, CpG DNA promoted profibrotic cytokine and chemokine synthesis in isolated human IPF fibroblasts, most markedly again in cells from patients with the rapidly progressive IPF phenotype, in a TLR9-dependent manner. Finally, CpG DNA exacerbated fibrosis in an in vivo model initiated by the adoptive transfer of primary fibroblasts derived from patients who exhibited rapidly progressing fibrosis. Together, these data suggested that TLR9 activation via hypomethylated DNA might be an important mechanism in promoting fibrosis particularly in patients prone to rapidly progressing IPF.
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