A research team at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) led by Carol Feghali-Bostwick, Ph.D., reports in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI) Insight that the E4 peptide reverses fibrosis, or scarring, in human and mouse tissues by activating an antifibrotic pathway that is common to all organ systems.
The team’s findings are significant because they suggest that the peptide could be effective at reversing fibrosis in multiple organ systems. Fibrosis is implicated in a wide range of diseases, including heart disease, lung fibrosis, liver cirrhosis and chronic kidney disease.
Feghali-Bostwick, senior author of the article, identified the E4 peptide as a potent antifibrotic agent while working at the University of Pittsburgh before joining MUSC as the SmartState and Kitty Trask Holt Endowed Chair in Scleroderma Research in 2013. However, the mechanism by which it reversed fibrosis remained incompletely understood.
The two lead authors of the JCI Insight article, Shailza Sharma, Ph.D., and Tomoya Watanabe, M.D., Ph.D., both members of Feghali-Bostwick’s MUSC laboratory, finalized the work started by Tetsuya Nishimoto, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at MUSC who unexpectedly passed away after a brief illness in 2016, to uncover that mechanism.
“We identified this peptide about a decade ago and described its antifibrotic activity in different tissues,” explained Feghali-Bostwick. “Our current work explains how the peptide exerts antifibrotic effect and what makes it so effective.”
Fibrosis is the end stage for many diseases and often leads to organ failure. All organ systems share a common path to end-stage fibrosis: excessive production and deposition of collagen and similar proteins. Collagen is the body’s connective tissue and provides the physical scaffolding for our organs. However, excess collagen can cause organs to shrink, harden and cease to function properly. Patients with end-stage fibrosis have few treatment options and many will require organ transplantation.
The E4 peptide is derived from a fragment of a collagen protein. However, when the parent protein is cut, the resulting fragment can have several different roles, including stopping fibrosis.
To understand more fully how E4 reverses fibrosis, the MUSC team performed studies to determine how it interacted with other proteins in the body. E4 had effects on proteins involved in the urokinase pathway, which is known to inhibit fibrosis. The pathway functions by ultimately activating enzymes that break down excess collagen. The pathway also stops further production of fibrotic collagens.
The team conducted its studies by using cells collected from human lungs. Team members also constructed tissue cores from fibrotic lungs donated from patients with lung fibrosis. Healthy lungs are more commonly donated, so tissue cores were also constructed from them, and then fibrosis was induced. These tissue cores provide a model that is more relevant to human disease than cells alone.
E4 was able to reverse fibrosis even in the end-stage fibrotic lungs. Results were then reproduced in mice with lung fibrosis, showing that E4 had the same functions in a dish and in a living system, activating the urokinase pathway in both cases.
“It had already been shown that, when activated, the urokinase pathway can effectively reverse fibrosis in different organs,” said Feghali-Bostwick. “We found a way to activate it with the peptide.”
The MUSC study linked the E4 peptide with this known antifibrotic pathway to provide a possible clinical solution for patients with fibrosis.
“The intellectual property around the peptide has already been licensed, and there’s a company developing it,” said Feghali-Bostwick. The company, iBio Inc. (Bryan, TX), is currently doing preclinical testing of the peptide and preparing for phase 1 safety trials.
“Now that we know how the peptide works, we’re confident that it will be beneficial for fibrosis in different organs,” said Feghali-Bostwick.
No negative side effects were seen in the experimental models on which E4 was tested.
“The peptide is derived from a natural molecule in the body, so we don’t expect it to have side effects,” she explained.
Surprisingly, E4 activates the urokinase pathway by binding to a cell membrane protein called enolase that is involved in sugar breakdown. Further research will have the team looking into different binding partners, additional mechanisms through which E4 can prevent and reverse fibrosis and the ideal length of the E4 peptide.
It is meticulous basic research such as this that leads to clinical breakthroughs, according to Feghali-Bostwick.
“It is important to appreciate the power of basic research in identifying possible therapies, which can then be developed by companies to provide translational solutions for patients.”
Founded in 1824 in Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is the oldest medical school in the South as well as the state's only integrated, academic health sciences center with a unique charge to serve the state through education, research and patient care. Each year, MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and nearly 800 residents in six colleges: Dental Medicine, Graduate Studies, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy. The state's leader in obtaining biomedical research funds, in fiscal year 2019, MUSC set a new high, bringing in more than $284 million. For information on academic programs, visit musc.edu.
As the clinical health system of the Medical University of South Carolina, MUSC Health is dedicated to delivering the highest quality patient care available while training generations of competent, compassionate health care providers to serve the people of South Carolina and beyond. Comprising some 1,600 beds, more than 100 outreach sites, the MUSC College of Medicine, the physicians' practice plan and nearly 275 telehealth locations, MUSC Health owns and operates eight hospitals situated in Charleston, Chester, Florence, Lancaster and Marion counties. In 2020, for the sixth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report named MUSC Health the No. 1 hospital in South Carolina. To learn more about clinical patient services, visit muschealth.org.
MUSC and its affiliates have collective annual budgets of $3.2 billion. The more than 17,000 MUSC team members include world-class faculty, physicians, specialty providers and scientists who deliver groundbreaking education, research, technology and patient care.
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Human tissue samples
E4 engages uPAR and enolase-1 and activates urokinase to exert antifibrotic effects
Article Publication Date
Carol Feghali-Bostwick is an inventor on patents (8507441, 8716232, 9365616, 9556252, 10172923, 10709769, 10844392) for the antifibrotic effects of E4 and has received research funding from iBio Inc., which has licensed the intellectual property from the University of Pittsburgh. Feghali-Bostwick is also the inventor on several pending patent applications filed by MUSC related to improvements and additional methodologies for the E4 peptide.