Thyroid-associated orbitopathy (TAO) is a disfiguring periocular connective tissue disease associated with autoimmune thyroid disorders. It is a potentially blinding condition, for which no effective pharmacological treatment has been established. Despite a suggested role played by autoimmune thyrotropin receptor activation in the pathogenesis of TAO, the cellular and molecular events contributing to the fibrotic and inflammatory disease process of TAO are not fully defined. By developing a three-dimensional organoid culture of human orbital fibroblasts (OFs), we sought to determine the molecular mechanism underlying the fibrotic disease process of TAO. In this ex vivo model, we have demonstrated that hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) 2α (HIF2A), but not its paralog HIF1A, accelerates extracellular matrix (ECM) deposition by inducing a collagen-cross-linking enzyme, lysyl oxidase (LOX). Inhibiting HIF2A and LOX with short hairpin RNA or small molecular antagonists effectively ameliorated fibrotic disease process within TAO organoids. Conversely, the overexpression of a constitutively active HIF2A in mouse OFs was sufficient to initiate LOX-dependent fibrotic tissue remodeling in OF organoids. Consistent with these findings, HIF2A and LOX were highly expressed in human TAO tissues paralleling excess ECM deposition. We propose that the HIF2A-LOX pathway can be a potential therapeutic target for the prevention and treatment of TAO.
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