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Large-scale analysis of longitudinal skin gene expression in systemic sclerosis reveals relationships of immune cell and fibroblast activity with skin thickness and a trend towards normalisation over time


Objectives Determine relationships between skin gene expression and systemic sclerosis (SSc) clinical disease features, and changes in skin gene expression over time.

Methods A total of 339 forearm skin biopsies were obtained from 113 SSc patients and 44 matched healthy controls. 105 SSc patients had a second biopsy, and 76 had a third biopsy. Global gene expression profiling was performed, and differentially expressed genes and cell type-specific signatures in SSc were evaluated for relationships to modified Rodnan Skin Score (mRSS) and other clinical variables. Changes in skin gene expression over time were analysed by mixed effects models and principal component analysis. Immunohistochemical staining was performed to validate conclusions.

Results Gene expression dysregulation was greater in SSc patients with affected skin than in those with unaffected skin. Immune cell and fibroblast signatures positively correlated with mRSS. High baseline immune cell and fibroblast signatures predicted higher mRSS over time, but were not independently predictive of longitudinal mRSS after adjustment for baseline mRSS. In early diffuse cutaneous SSc, immune cell and fibroblast signatures declined over time, and overall skin gene expression trended towards normalisation. On immunohistochemical staining, most early diffuse cutaneous SSc patients with high baseline T cell and macrophage numbers had declines in these numbers at follow-up.

Conclusions Skin thickness in SSc is related to dysregulated immune cell and fibroblast gene expression. Skin gene expression changes over time in early diffuse SSc, with a tendency towards normalisation. These observations are relevant for understanding SSc pathogenesis and could inform treatment strategies and clinical trial design.

  • scleroderma
  • systemic
  • fibroblasts
  • autoimmune diseases

Data availability statement

Data are available in a public, open access repository. Gene expression, demographic and clinical data were uploaded to NCBI’s Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO), accession number GSE181549. The data can be accessed using the token: mdqtwqkqldwtjml.

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