Background: Interstitial lung disease (ILD) is a serious complication of connective tissue diseases (CTDs). Although immune dysregulation triggered by genetic and environmental factors is thought to provoke inflammation and subsequent fibrosis, precise mechanisms of these processes remain unclear. Recent reports suggest that activation of aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) signals by various ligands such as tryptophan derivatives can induce hyper-immune responses and are involved in autoimmunity. We investigated the effects of AhR signals on the process of lung fibrosis and changes in immunological features using a bleomycin (BLM)-induced lung fibrosis mouse model. Methods: BLM was administered intratracheally to C57BL/6JJcl mice and either 5,11-dihydroindolo[3,2-b]carbazole-6-carboxaldehyde (FICZ), a natural AhR ligand, or vehicle was subsequently injected intraperitoneally on day 0, 1, and 2 from BLM administration. Mice were sacrificed at week 3, and lung fibrosis was quantified by the histological changes using the Ashcroft score and deposition of soluble collagen levels in the lung using Sircol assay. The population of immune cells infiltrated into the lungs was analyzed using flow cytometry. Results: Both the Ashcroft score and soluble collagen level in FICZ-treated mice were significantly lower than those in the vehicle group. Moreover, the survival rate of FICZ-treated mice was significantly higher than that of control mice during the 3 weeks after treatment. Interestingly, flow cytometric analysis revealed that the number of CD4+Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) was significantly increased and CD4+IFNγ+ and γδ+IL-17A+ T cells were decreased in the lungs of FICZ-treated mice, while the total number of T, B, and NK cells were unaffected by FICZ treatment. Conclusions: Our findings suggest that stimulation of AhR signals attenuated lung fibrosis by increasing Tregs and suppressing inflammatory T cell subsets in a BLM-induced fibrosis model. AhR signaling pathways may therefore be useful therapeutic targets for connective tissue disease-associated ILD.
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