Telomere Dysfunction Instigates Inflammation in Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic inflammatory condition driven by diverse genetic and nongenetic programs that converge to disrupt immune homeostasis in the intestine. We have reported that, in murine intestinal epithelium with telomere dysfunction, DNA damage-induced activation of ataxia-telangiectasia mutated (ATM) results in ATM-mediated phosphorylation and activation of the YAP1 transcriptional coactivator, which in turn up-regulates pro-IL-18, a pivotal immune regulator in IBD pathogenesis. Moreover, individuals with germline defects in telomere maintenance genes experience increased occurrence of intestinal inflammation and show activation of the ATM/YAP1/pro-IL-18 pathway in the intestinal epithelium. Here, we sought to determine the relevance of the ATM/YAP1/pro-IL-18 pathway as a potential driver of IBD, particularly older-onset IBD. Analysis of intestinal biopsy specimens and organoids from older-onset IBD patients documented the presence of telomere dysfunction and activation of the ATM/YAP1/precursor of interleukin 18 (pro-IL-18) pathway in the intestinal epithelium. Employing intestinal organoids from healthy individuals, we demonstrated that experimental induction of telomere dysfunction activates this inflammatory pathway. In organoid models from ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease patients, pharmacological interventions of telomerase reactivation, suppression of DNA damage signaling, or YAP1 inhibition reduced pro-IL-18 production. Together, these findings support a model wherein telomere dysfunction in the intestinal epithelium can initiate the inflammatory process in IBD, pointing to therapeutic interventions for this disease.

Germline telomere maintenance defects are associated with an increased incidence of inflammatory diseases in humans, yet whether and how telomere dysfunction causes inflammation are not known. Here, we show that telomere dysfunction drives pATM/c-ABL-mediated activation of the YAP1 transcription factor, up-regulating the major pro-inflammatory factor, pro-IL-18. The colonic microbiome stimulates cytosolic receptors activating caspase-1 which cleaves pro-IL-18 into mature IL-18, leading to recruitment of interferon (IFN)-γ-secreting T cells and intestinal inflammation. Correspondingly, patients with germline telomere maintenance defects exhibit DNA damage (γH2AX) signaling together with elevated YAP1 and IL-18 expression. In mice with telomere dysfunction, telomerase reactivation in the intestinal epithelium or pharmacological inhibition of ATM, YAP1, or caspase-1 as well as antibiotic treatment, dramatically reduces IL-18 and intestinal inflammation. Thus, telomere dysfunction-induced activation of the ATM-YAP1-pro-IL-18 pathway in epithelium is a key instigator of tissue inflammation.

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