Endotracheal bleomycin administration in rats and other animal species causes rapid development of pulmonary fibrosis, characterized by increased lung collagen synthesis and deposition. To clarify the mechanism, lung fibroblasts from bleomycin-treated rats (BRF) were isolated and maintained in tissue culture. They were then compared with those from normal untreated control animals, with respect to several key parameters of collagen metabolism. BRF synthesized collagen at a rate 35-82% above normal rat lung fibroblasts (NRF). This difference did not appear to be due to the selection of a clone by the subculture process. Furthermore, analysis of newly synthesized collagen type composition, revealed a significantly lower ratio of type III to type I collagen. Noncollagenous protein synthesis, however, was not significantly different from normal. Collagenase production and growth rate were also unaffected. BRF, however, was morphologically indistinguishable from NRF, even at the ultrastructural level. Upon further bleomycin (1 microgram/ml) exposure in vitro, BRF could be further stimulated to synthesize collagen at 82% above the rate for untreated BRF. This is comparable to the 90% increase in NRF treated in vitro (compared with untreated NRF). These results would favor the conclusion that bleomycin induces pulmonary fibrosis, by causing directly and/or indirectly lung fibroblasts (or a certain line of lung fibroblasts) to synthesize collagen at a higher rate without any associated increase in growth rate. The data, however, do not rule out the possibility that the fibroblast isolation procedure has selected for a certain population of fibroblasts that may not be typical of the in vivo situation.
S H Phan, J Varani, D Smith