Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a precursor sex hormone with antifibrotic properties. The aims of this study were to investigate antifibrotic mechanisms of DHEA, and to determine the relationship between DHEA-sulfate (DHEAS) plasma levels, disease severity and survival in patients with fibrotic interstitial lung diseases (ILDs).
Human precision cut lung slices (PCLS) and normal human lung fibroblasts were treated with DHEA and/or transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1 before analysis of pro-fibrotic genes and signal proteins. Cell proliferation, cytotoxicity, cell cycle and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) activity were assessed. DHEAS plasma levels were correlated with pulmonary function, the composite physiologic index (CPI), and time to death or lung transplantation in a derivation cohort of 31 men with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and in an independent validation cohort of 238 men and women with fibrotic ILDs.
DHEA decreased the expression of pro-fibrotic markers in-vitro and ex-vivo. There was no cytotoxic effect for the applied concentrations, but DHEA interfered in proliferation by modulating the cell cycle through reduction of G6PD activity. In men with IPF (derivation cohort) DHEAS plasma levels in the lowest quartile were associated with poor lung function and higher CPI (adjusted OR 1.15 [95% CI 1.03-1.38], p = 0.04), which was confirmed in the fibrotic ILD validation cohort (adjusted OR 1.03 [95% CI 1.00-1.06], p = 0.01). In both cohorts the risk of early mortality was higher in patients with low DHEAS levels, after accounting for potential confounding by age in men with IPF (HR 3.84, 95% CI 1.25-11.7, p = 0.02), and for age, sex, IPF diagnosis and prednisone treatment in men and women with fibrotic ILDs (HR 3.17, 95% CI 1.35-7.44, p = 0.008).
DHEA reduces lung fibrosis and cell proliferation by inducing cell cycle arrest and inhibition of G6PD activity. The association between low DHEAS levels and disease severity suggests a potential prognostic and therapeutic role of DHEAS in fibrotic ILD.