Research Papers:

The non-neuronal cyclin-dependent kinase 5 is a fibrotic mediator potentially implicated in systemic sclerosis and a novel therapeutic target

Jun Wei, Roberta G. Marangoni, Feng Fang, Wenxia Wang, Jingang Huang, Joerg H.W. Distler and John Varga _

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Oncotarget. 2018; 9:10294-10306. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.23516

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Jun Wei1, Roberta G. Marangoni1, Feng Fang1, Wenxia Wang1, Jingang Huang2, Joerg H.W. Distler2 and John Varga1

1Northwestern Scleroderma Program, Department of Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL, USA

2Department of Internal Medicine, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and University Hospital Erlangen, Erlangen, Germany

Correspondence to:

John Varga, email: [email protected]

Keywords: fibrosis; fibroblast; adipocyte; myofibroblast; CDK5

Received: July 23, 2017     Accepted: December 13, 2017     Published: December 20, 2017


The mechanisms underlying persistent fibroblast activation and myofibroblast phenoconversion in underlying multi-organ fibrosis in systemic sclerosis (SSc) remain incompletely understood, hindering effective therapies to slow or reverse the process. Cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (CDK5) is a pleiotropic member of the CDK family originally identified in neuronal cells. In contrast to other CDKs, CDK5 activity depends on its CDK5R1 subunit p35. Here we demonstrate that expression of p35 and CDK5 activity are induced by TGF-ß in fibroblasts and adipocytic cell types. Levels of p35 are markedly elevated in both SSc skin biopsies and explanted SSc fibroblasts, as well as in fibrotic skin in mice. Ectopic p35 and CDK5 suppressed adipogenic markers while stimulating collagen production and myofibroblast markers, whereas RNAi-mediated CDK5 knockdown abrogated TGF-β fibrotic responses in a Smad-independent manner. Pharmacological inhibitors of CDK5 likewise prevented and reversed TGF-β responses in fibroblast monolayers and in ex vivo human skin organ cultures, ameliorated collagen overproduction in SSc fibroblasts, and prevented and reversed skin fibrosis in two distinct mouse models of SSc. Together, these results reveal a previously unrecognized key function for p35/CDK5 as a mediator of mesenchymal cell fibrotic responses. The results suggest a potential pathogenic role for elevated p35 expression and CDK5 activity in SSc, and raise the possibility that their selective pharmacological targeting might represent a novel treatment approach in fibrosis.

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