Scientists discover novel treatment target for pulmonary fibrosis


Northwestern Medicine scientists have demonstrated that a unique population of immune cells plays a key role in the development of pulmonary fibrosis, and showed that targeting such cells could lead to new treatments for the disease.

The study, a collaboration across multiple divisions, departments and schools at Northwestern, was led by Dr. Scott Budinger, chief of pulmonary and critical care in the department of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Harris Perlman, chief of rheumatology in the department of medicine. In paper was published July 10 in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Pulmonary fibrosis — including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and scleroderma-associated pulmonary fibrosis — is a fatal disease marked by scarring and hardening of lung tissue. The cause is often unknown, and there is currently no effective treatment.

Previously, it was generally accepted in the field that immune cells were unimportant to the development of pulmonary fibrosis. But data from Northwestern's extensive research program in scleroderma — an autoimmune disease that results in hardening of the skin and is closely tied to pulmonary fibrosis — suggested that immune cells may actually play an important role.

To test that hypothesis, the team of scientists utilized next-generation sequencing technologies and novel animal models, generated at Northwestern, to trace immune cells throughout the progression of pulmonary fibrosis.

They also applied those tools to the analysis of tissue samples collected at Northwestern Medicine hospitals, correlating the animal model data with the patient samples. "One of the strengths of our study is that we go from bench to bedside," Perlman said.

The scientists discovered that a new sub-population of immune cells — called monocyte-derived alveolar macrophages — were in fact a key driver of disease development in pulmonary fibrosis. Further, the genetic deletion of this population of cells prevented fibrosis in mouse models.

"This will be transformative for the field," said first author Dr. Alexander Misharin, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary and critical care at Feinberg. "Pulmonary fibrosis is a complex disease — it's not driven by a single gene or cell type — but this study now demonstrates that these immune cells play a key role. This will change the current paradigm."

The findings have important implications for the development of future therapies, especially given that targeting such cells may lead to fewer adverse effects. "These cells are attractive for therapy because they don't need to be there. They aren't necessary for normal function or developmental purposes," said Perlman, also the Mabel Greene Myers Professor of Medicine.

The novel methods used in the research could also spark future research in the field.

"This is a novel application of genomic technologies to understanding pulmonary fibrosis," said Budinger, also the Ernest S. Bazley Professor of Airway Diseases and a professor of cell and molecular biology. "By showing that these technologies can be directly applied to patient samples, we offer the promise of incorporating them into personalized medicine approaches. It creates a resource for the research community to develop novel therapies."

The team is now actively deploying these technologies to examine lungs from patients with pulmonary fibrosis, fibrotic skins from patients with scleroderma and joints from patients with rheumatoid arthritis, to identify other common immune mechanisms in fibrosis that might be targets for new therapies.

Budinger, Perlman and Misharin are also members of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. In a separate finding, the scientists discovered that injury to a mouse early in life permanently altered the immune cell population in the lungs, findings which could have implications for aging research.

"Severe injury early in life permanently changes you, in a way that might impact your susceptibility to disease when you get older," Budinger said.


The research was supported by National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases grant AR061593, an American Thoracic Society/Scleroderma Foundation research grant, Department of Defense grant PR141319, a BD Bioscience immunology research grant, Northwestern University's Lung Sciences Training Program 5T32 HL076139-13 NIH grant AR064313, Northwestern University's Transplant Surgery Scientist Training Program (NIH grant T32 DK077662), the American Society for Transplant Surgery Foundation, NIH grant HL125940 and matching

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