The pro-fibrogenic cytokine connective tissue growth factor (CTGF) plays an important role in the development and progression of fibrosis in many organ systems, including liver. However, its role in the pathogenesis of hepatitis C virus (HCV)-induced liver fibrosis remains unclear.
In the present study, we assessed CTGF expression in HCV-infected hepatocytes using replicon cells containing full-length HCV genotype 1 and the infectious HCV clone JFH1 (HCV genotype 2) by real-time PCR, Western blot analysis and confocal microscopy. We evaluated transforming growth factor β1 (TGF-β1) as a key upstream mediator of CTGF production using neutralizing antibodies and shRNAs. We also determined the signaling molecules involved in CTGF production using various immunological techniques.
We demonstrated an enhanced expression of CTGF in two independent models of HCV infection. We also demonstrated that HCV induced CTGF expression in a TGF-β1-dependent manner. Further dissection of the molecular mechanisms revealed that CTGF production was mediated through sequential activation of MAPkinase and Smad-dependent pathways. Finally, to determine whether CTGF regulates fibrosis, we showed that shRNA-mediated knock-down of CTGF resulted in reduced expression of fibrotic markers in HCV replicon cells.
Our studies demonstrate a central role for CTGF expression in HCV-induced liver fibrosis and highlight the potential value of developing CTGF-based anti-fibrotic therapies to counter HCV-induced liver damage.