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Abstract

Objective

Fibrosis in human diseases and animal models is associated with aberrant Wnt/β-catenin pathway activation. The aim of this study was to characterize the regulation, activity, mechanism of action, and significance of Wnt/β-catenin signaling in the context of systemic sclerosis (SSc).

Methods

The expression of Wnt signaling pathway components in SSc skin biopsy specimens was analyzed. The regulation of profibrotic responses by canonical Wnt/β-catenin was examined in explanted human mesenchymal cells. Fibrotic responses were studied using proliferation, migration, and gel contraction assays. The cell fate specification of subcutaneous preadipocytes by canonical Wnt signaling was evaluated.

Results

Analysis of published genome-wide expression data revealed elevated expression of the Wnt receptor FZD2 and the Wnt target LEF1 and decreased expression of Wnt antagonists DKK2 and WIF1 in skin biopsy specimens from subsets of patients with diffuse cutaneous SSc compared to the other distinct subsets. Immunohistochemical analysis showed increased nuclear β-catenin expression in these biopsy specimens. In vitro, Wnt-3a induced β-catenin activation, stimulated fibroblast proliferation and migration, collagen gel contraction, and myofibroblast differentiation, and enhanced profibrotic gene expression. Genetic and pharmacologic approaches were used to demonstrate that these profibrotic responses involved autocrine transforming growth factor β signaling via Smads. In contrast, in explanted subcutaneous preadipocytes, Wnt-3a repressed adipogenesis and promoted myofibroblast differentiation.

Conclusion

Canonical Wnt signaling was hyperactivated in SSc skin biopsy specimens. In explanted mesenchymal cells, Wnt-3a stimulated fibrogenic responses while suppressing adipogenesis. Taken together, these results indicate that Wnts have potent profibrotic effects, and that canonical Wnt signaling plays an important role in the pathogenesis of fibrosis and lipoatrophy in SSc.