Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) is a chronic disease of preterm babies with poor clinical outcomes. Nrf2 transcription factor is crucial for cytoprotective response, whereas Keap1—an endogenous inhibitor of Nrf2 signaling—dampens these protective responses. Nrf2-sufficient (wild type) newborn mice exposed to hyperoxia develop hypoalveolarization, which phenocopies human BPD, and Nrf2 deficiency worsens it. In this study, we used PND1 pups bearing bearing hypomorphic Keap1 floxed alleles (Keap1f/f) with increased levels of Nrf2 to test the hypothesis that constitutive levels of Nrf2 in the premature lung are insufficient to mitigate hyperoxia-induced hypoalveolarization. Both wildtype and Keap1f/f pups at PND1 were exposed to hyperoxia for 72 h and then allowed to recover at room air for two weeks (at PND18), sacrificed, and lung hypoalveolarization and inflammation assessed. Hyperoxia-induced lung hypoalveolarization was remarkably lower in Keap1f/f pups than in wildtype counterparts (28.9% vs 2.4%, wildtype vs Keap1f/f). Likewise, Keap1f/f pups were protected against prolonged (96 h) hyperoxia-induced hypoalveolarization. However, there were no differences in hyperoxia-induced lung inflammatory response immediately after exposure or at PND18. Lack of hypoalveolarization in Keap1f/f pups was accompanied by increased levels of expression of antioxidant genes and GSH as assessed immediately following hyperoxia. Keap1 knockdown resulted in upregulation of lung cell proliferation postnatally but had opposing effects following hyperoxia. Collectively, our study demonstrates that augmenting endogenous Nrf2 activation by targeting Keap1 may provide a physiological way to prevent hypoalveolarization associated with prematurity.
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