Viral infections have been associated with exacerbation of disease in human cases of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Since pulmonary fibrosis is a common outcome after irradiation to the lung, we hypothesized that viral infection after radiation exposure would exacerbate radiation-induced lung injury. Epithelial injury, a frequent outcome after infection, has been hypothesized to contribute to the pathogenesis of pulmonary fibrosis and bronchiolar epithelial Clara cells participate in epithelial repair. Therefore, it was further hypothesized that altered responses after irradiation involve the bronchiolar epithelial Clara cells. C57BL/6J or CCSP–/– mice were irradiated with 0 (sham), 5, 10 or 15 Gy to the whole thorax. At ten weeks post-irradiation, animals were mock infected or infected with influenza A virus and body weight and survival were monitored. Pulmonary function was assessed by whole-body plethysmography. The Clara cell markers, CCSP and Cyp2f2, were measured in the lung by qRT-PCR, and protein expression was visualized in the lung by immunofluorescence. Following pulmonary function tests, mice were sacrificed and tissues were collected for pathological analysis. In 15 Gy irradiated animals infected with influenza A virus, accelerated respiratory rates, reduced pulmonary function, and exacerbated lung pathology occurred earlier post-irradiation than previously observed after irradiation alone, suggesting infection accelerates the development of radiation injury. After irradiation alone, CCSP and Cyp2f2 mRNA levels were reduced, correlating with reductions in the number of Clara cells lining the airways. When combined with infection, these markers further declined and an apparent delay in recovery of mRNA expression was observed, suggesting that radiation injury leads to a chronic reduction in the number of Clara cells that may potentiate the epithelial injury observed after influenza A virus infection. This novel finding may have considerable therapeutic implications with respect to both thoracic tumor patients and recipients of bone marrow transplants.
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