A novel multi-network approach reveals tissue-specific cellular modulators of fibrosis in systemic sclerosis
Systemic sclerosis (SSc) is characterized by inflammation, vascular dysfunction, and ultimately fibrosis. Progress in understanding disease pathogenesis and developing effective disease treatments has been hampered by an incomplete understanding of SSc heterogeneity. To clarify this, we have used genomic approaches to identify distinct patient subsets based on gene expression patterns in SSc skin and other end-target organs. Here, we review what is known about the gene expression-based subsets in SSc, currently defined as the inflammatory, fibroproliferative, limited, and normal-like subsets. The inflammatory subset of patients is characterized by infiltrating immune cells that include T cells, macrophages, and possibly dendritic cells, although little is known about the mediators these cells secrete and the pathways that govern cell activation. Prior studies have suggested a role for pathogens as a trigger of immune responses in SSc, and recent data have identified viral and mycobiome components as potential environmental triggers. We present a model based on analyses of gene expression data and a review of the literature, which suggests that the gene expression subsets observed in patients possibly represent distinct, interconnected molecular states of disease, to which an innate immune response is central that results in the generation of clinical disease.