Pro-fibrotic phenotype in a patient with segmental stiff skin syndrome via tgf-β signaling overactivation

Carmela Fusco, Grazia Nardella, Bartolomeo Augello, Francesca Boccafoschi, Orazio Palumbo, Luca Fusaro, Angelantonio Notarangelo, Raffaela Barbano, Paola Parrella, Giuseppina Annicchiarico, Carmela De Meco, Lucia Micale, Paolo Graziano, Marco Castori

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) superfamily signaling pathways are ubiquitous and essential for several cellular and physiological processes. The overexpression of TGF-β results in excessive fibrosis in multiple human disorders. Among them, stiff skin syndrome (SSS) is an ultrarare and untreatable condition characterized by the progressive thickening and hardening of the dermis, and acquired joint limitations. SSS is distinct in a widespread form, caused by recurrent germline variants of FBN1 encoding a key molecule of the TGF-β signaling, and a segmental form with unknown molecular basis. Here, we report a 12-year-old female with segmental SSS, affecting the right upper limb with acquired thickening of the dermis evident at the magnetic resonance imaging, and progressive limitation of the elbow and shoulder. To better explore the molecular and cellular mechanisms that drive segmental SSS, several functional studies on patient’s fibroblasts were employed. We hypothesized an impairment of TGF-β signaling and, consequently, a dysregulation of the associated downstream signaling. Lesional fibroblast studies showed a higher phosphorylation level of extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2), increased levels of nuclear factor-kB (NFkB), and a nuclear accumulation of phosphorylated Smad2 via Western blot and microscopy analyses. Quantitative PCR expression analysis of genes encoding key extracellular matrix proteins revealed increased levels of COL1A1, COL3A1, AGT, LTBP and ITGB1, while zymography assay reported a reduced metalloproteinase 2 enzymatic activity. In vitro exposure of patient’s fibroblasts to losartan led to the partial restoration of normal transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) marker protein levels. Taken together, these data demonstrate that in our patient, segmental SSS is characterized by the overactivation of multiple TGF-β signaling pathways, which likely results in altered extracellular matrix composition and fibroblast homeostasis. Our results for the first time reported that aberrant TGF-β signaling may drive the pathogenesis of segmental SSS and might open the way to novel therapeutic approaches.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5141
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Molecular Sciences
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2 2020


  • Fibrosis
  • Losartan
  • Pathogenesis
  • Stiff skin syndrome
  • TGF-β

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • Molecular Biology
  • Spectroscopy
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry


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