Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a fatal fibrotic lung disease associated with unremitting fibroblast activation including fibroblast-to-myofibroblast transformation (FMT), migration, resistance to apoptotic clearance, and excessive deposition of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins in the distal lung parenchyma. Aberrant activation of lung-developmental pathways is associated with severe fibrotic lung disease; however, the mechanisms through which these pathways activate fibroblasts in IPF remain unclear. Sry-box transcription factor 9 (Sox9) is a member of the high-mobility group box family of DNA-binding transcription factors that are selectively expressed by epithelial cell progenitors to modulate branching morphogenesis during lung development. We demonstrate that Sox9 is upregulated via MAPK/PI3K-dependent signaling and by the transcription factor Wilms’ tumor 1 in distal lung-resident fibroblasts in IPF. Mechanistically, using fibroblast activation assays, we demonstrate that Sox9 functions as a positive regulator of FMT, migration, survival, and ECM production. Importantly, our in vivo studies demonstrate that fibroblast-specific deletion of Sox9 is sufficient to attenuate collagen deposition and improve lung function during TGF-α–induced pulmonary fibrosis. Using a mouse model of bleomycin-induced pulmonary fibrosis, we show that myofibroblast-specific Sox9 overexpression augments fibroblast activation and pulmonary fibrosis. Thus, Sox9 functions as a profibrotic transcription factor in activating fibroblasts, illustrating the potential utility of targeting Sox9 in IPF treatment.
Prathibha R. Gajjala, Rajesh K. Kasam, Divyalakshmi Soundararajan, Debora Sinner, Steven K. Huang, Anil G. Jegga, Satish K. Madala