Adipocytes regulate fibroblast function, and their loss contributes to fibroblast dysfunction in inflammatory diseases

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Fibroblasts play critical roles in tissue homeostasis, but in pathologic states can drive fibrosis, inflammation, and tissue destruction. In the joint synovium, fibroblasts provide homeostatic maintenance and lubrication. Little is known about what regulates the homeostatic functions of fibroblasts in healthy conditions. We performed RNA sequencing of healthy human synovial tissue and identified a fibroblast gene expression program characterized by enhanced fatty acid metabolism and lipid transport. We found that fat-conditioned media reproduces key aspects of the lipid-related gene signature in cultured fibroblasts. Fractionation and mass spectrometry identified cortisol in driving the healthy fibroblast phenotype, confirmed using glucocorticoid receptor gene ( NR3C1 ) deleted cells. Depletion of synovial adipocytes in mice resulted in loss of the healthy fibroblast phenotype and revealed adipocytes as a major contributor to active cortisol generation via Hsd11 β 1 expression. Cortisol signaling in fibroblasts mitigated matrix remodeling induced by TNFα- and TGFβ, while stimulation with these cytokines repressed cortisol signaling and adipogenesis. Together, these findings demonstrate the importance of adipocytes and cortisol signaling in driving the healthy synovial fibroblast state that is lost in disease.

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