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The effect of cathepsin K deficiency on airway development and TGF-β1 degradation

Dongwei Zhang1, Nelson Leung1, Ekkehard Weber2, Paul Saftig3 and Dieter Brömme1*

Author Affiliations

1 The University of British Columbia, Department of Oral Biological and Medicinal Sciences, Vancouver, V6T1Z3, Canada

2 Institute of Biochemistry, Martin-Luther University of Halle Wittenberg, Halle, Germany

3 Unit of Molecular Cell Biology and Transgenic Research, Institute of Biochemistry, Christian Albrecht University Kiel, Germany

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Respiratory Research 2011, 12:72  doi:10.1186/1465-9921-12-72

Published: 31 May 2011



Cathepsin K, a cysteine protease predominantly expressed in osteoclasts, is a major drug target for the treatment of osteoporosis. Recent findings, however, indicate that cathepsin K is also involved in non-skeletal metabolism. The development of fibrotic phenotypes in lung and skin is a concern for cathepsin K inhibitors presently evaluated in clinical trials. Cathepsin K is expressed in lung tissue and has been implicated in lung fibrosis. However, little is known about the role of cathepsin K in airway development and its effect on TGF-β1 degradation.


We investigated the effects of cathepsin K-deficiency on alterations in airway integrity, extracellular matrix composition, and TGF-β1 expression and degradation. Lung homogenates of wild-type and cathepsin K-deficient mice were used to evaluate their contents of collagen, glycosaminoglycans, and TGF-β1. The accessibility of TGF-β1 to cathepsin K-mediated degradation was determined in vitro and lung fibroblast proliferations in wild-type and cathepsin K-deficient cells were evaluated.


Lung airway cathepsin K expression in wild-type mice remained constant between 1 and 6 months of age and the airway integrity was maintained. In contrast, after 2 months of age, all Ctsk-/- mice demonstrated increased airway epithelium thickness by 16-28%, a lower structural airway integrity (1-2 score units lower), elevated cytokeratin expression of 12%, increased α-actin and vimentin expression by 50% and 70%, increased area of smooth muscle cells by 15%, elevated hydroxyproline and GAGs content by 20% and 25%, and increased TGF-β1 expression by 25%. TGF-β1 proved an efficient substrate of cathepsin K and TGF-β1 protein content in lung was increased by a potent cathepsin inhibitor. Lung fibroblasts from Ctsk-/- mice after TGF-β1 treatment showed increased proliferation rates, increased levels of TGF-β1 by 30%, and increased ECM secretion.


This study suggests that airway development is partly regulated by cathepsin K and that its expression contributes to the maintenance of the airway structural integrity. The anticipated use of therapeutic cathepsin K inhibitors needs to take potential changes in human lungs into consideration.

lung airway; cathepsin K; TGF-β1; extracellular matrix; protease inhibitors