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Fibrocytes are implicated in Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) pathogenesis and increased proportions in the circulation are associated with poor prognosis. Upon tissue injury, fibrocytes migrate to the affected organ. In IPF patients, circulating fibrocytes are increased especially during exacerbations, however fibrocytes in the lungs have not been examined.
Therefore, we sought to evaluate if fibrocytes can be detected in IPF lungs and we compare percentages and phenotypic characteristics of lung fibrocytes with circulating fibrocytes in IPF.
First we optimized flow cytometric detection circulating fibrocytes using a unique combination of intra- and extra-cellular markers to establish a solid gating strategy. Next we analyzed lung fibrocytes in single cell suspensions of explanted IPF and control lungs and compared characteristics and numbers with circulating fibrocytes of IPF.
Using a gating strategy for both circulating and lung fibrocytes, which excludes potentially contaminating cell populations (e.g. neutrophils and different leukocyte subsets), we show that patients with IPF have increased proportions of fibrocytes, not only in the circulation, but also in explanted end-stage IPF lungs. These lung fibrocytes have increased surface expression of HLA-DR, increased intracellular collagen-1 expression, and also altered forward and side scatter characteristics compared with their circulating counterparts.
These findings demonstrate that lung fibrocytes in IPF patients can be quantified and characterized by flow cytometry. Lung fibrocytes have different characteristics than circulating fibrocytes and represent an intermediate cell population between circulating fibrocytes and lung fibroblast. Therefore, more insight in their phenotype might lead to specific therapeutic targeting in fibrotic lung diseases.