Weekend Review: Sterile Inflammation

If you've ever rolled your ankle (as I have many times), you have a visceral knowledge of inflammation. Clinically, inflammation is the redness, swelling, heat and pain that's associated with injury. From an immunologist's perspective, it's the set of molecular events that get the immune system going. All of the clinical systems associated with inflammation are due to increased vascular permeability, which is just a fancy way of saying leaky blood vessels. Actually, "leaky" implies that it's uncontrolled, when in fact there's a very orchestrated set of events that recruit immune cells and other helpful factors to the site of an injury.

I've talked a lot about inflammation in a lot contexts, but generally, I think of it as being triggered by the activation of a pattern recognition receptor (PRR) in response to a potential pathogen. When you get a cut, some bacteria are bound to get into it and set off the alarms - alarms that are triggered by "pathogen associated molecular patterns" (PAMPs). But in reality, there are a lot of things that trigger inflammation in the absence of bugs - the rolled ankle I mentioned above is a perfect example. Since there are no bugs involved, it's called sterile inflammation:

It is now apparent that these same PRRs can also be activated by non-microbial signals, many of which are considered as damage-associated molecular patterns [DAMPs]. The sterile inflammation that ensues either resolves the initial insult or leads to disease.

ResearchBlogging.orgDAMPs are the sterile equivalent of PAMPs, and it turns out that they activate inflammation in many of the same ways. Inflammation is usually helpful. Most infections are resolved once the neutrophils swarm in and lay down the napalm, and if they're insufficient, the same signals that trigger inflammation also activate the adaptive immune system. But inflammation is also destructive. Many of the strategies for eliminating bugs also cause tissue damage. Usually, a bit of damage is a small price to pay to clear an infection, but if inflammation remains unresolved, it can be a serious issue.

Take for instance, asbestos. Last week, I talked about the inflammasome, which can be triggered in response to membrane damage. When macrophages try to eat the asbestos crystals, they get frustrated and react by spewing out some inflammatory cytokines. Since the asbestos can't actually be eliminated, this process continues, and the lungs become chronically inflamed (how this can lead to cancer is a whole 'nother post). A similar problem may occur in obese individuals (macrophages have trouble mopping up the free fat when adipocytes die) leading to diabetes.

Many human diseases are associated with inflammation in the absence of infection. From autoimmunity to sprained ankles, it would be useful to know how the early events in inflammation are triggered. In some cases, known PRR's have been implicated, but by no means proven.

Based on our current understanding, we propose three, not necessarily mutually exclusive, mechanisms by which sterile endogenous stimuli trigger inflammation: activation of PRRs by mechanisms similar to those used by microorganisms and PAMPs; release of intracellular cytokines and chemokines, such as IL-1α, that activate common pathways downstream of PRRs; and direct activation by receptors that are not typically associated with microbial recognition

Of course, the stated goal for understanding these processes is always the potential for therapeutics, and the authors spend a good deal of time discussing possible targets, but I think the underlying questions are interesting as well. Did PRR's evolve to combat microbes, and then get co-opted to deal with sterile injury, or was it the other way around? Or is sterile inflammation and unintended consequence? Those questions are hard to answer though, and I think we're too early in our understanding to make any meaningful stabs.

As is becoming my habit, I'll leave you with the authors' concluding remarks:

Much progress has been made in identifying some of the triggers of sterile inflammation. Many questions remain, including the relative importance of the different DAMPs in their biological activity, whether they differentially activate downstream signalling pathways and the molecular basis for their recognition. Whether there are additional unidentified endogenous DAMPs that may be implicated in disease is also unknown. Finally, further studies are needed to understand how the different inflammatory signalling pathways (mediated by TLRs, inflammasomes and IL-1R) interact to mediate the sterile inflammatory response and how they may be modulated for the benefit of the host.

Chen GY, & Nuñez G (2010). Sterile inflammation: sensing and reacting to damage. Nature reviews. Immunology, 10 (12), 826-37 PMID: 21088683

More like this

This week, I'm going to take a break from vaccines and do some innate immunity. Today's topic: the provocatively named "Inflammasome." This Nature Review from last month focused on inflammasomes and anti-viral immunity, but I think the inflammasome itself needs its own post. A breakthrough in our…
[I've been hooked on the immune system since I was a kid and my dad showed me electron micrographs of macrophages eating bacteria in Scientific American. Now that I'm in graduate school studying immunology, and macrophages in particular, my dad asked if I could give a play-by-play of an immune…
Here at ERV, Ive talked about all kinds of pathogens and all kinds of vaccination strategies against those pathogens and cancers how our immune systems respond to these pathogens and vaccines and cancers and blah blah blah. When you think 'immunology' you think 'your body protecting itself', or if…
This entry is cross posted from the the SITN Flash, a bimonthly publication written and edited by Harvard graduate students. You can find my piece, as well as archives of previous articles written by many graduate students at the Science in the News website. In 1985, the Centers for Disease Control…

great post my friend,i am really interested in sterile inflammation. as you mentioned there are some endogenous molecules which cause strong sterile inflammatory responses such as ATP, Urea crystals etc. but there was just an example of Asbestos in the text that is an exogenouse stimuli.

there are some great invivo movies related to recruitment of GFP expressing neutrofiles to sterile inflammatory sites which are amazing, check them out in this link: