Carbon nanotubes and crystalline silica stimulate robust ROS production, inflammasome activation, and IL-1β secretion in macrophages to induce myofibroblast transformation

  • Bridget Hindman
  • Qiang MaEmail author


Pulmonary exposure to inhaled particulates elicits complex inflammatory and fibrotic responses that may progress to chronic fibrosis. The fibrogenic potentials of respirable particulates are influenced by their physicochemical properties and their interactions with major pathways to drive fibrotic development in the lung. Macrophages were exposed to six carbon nanotubes (CNTs) of varying dimensions, crystalline silica, or carbon black (CB), with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1 as positive controls. Macrophage-conditioned media was collected and applied to cultures of human pulmonary fibroblast line WI38-VA13 to induce myofibroblast transformation. Multi-walled and single-walled CNTs (MWCNTs and SWCNTs, respectively) and silica, but not CB, stimulated robust myofibroblast transformation through macrophage-conditioned media. On an equal weight basis, MWCNTs induced higher induction than SWCNTs. High induction was observed for MWCNTs with a long and slender or a short and rigid shape, and silica, at levels comparable to those by LPS and TGF-β1. Fibrogenic particulates induced high levels of IL-1β mRNA expression and protein secretion that are required for macrophage-guided myofibroblast transformation. Induction of IL-1β is dependent on the activation of the NLRP3 (NOD-like receptor family, pyrin domain containing 3) inflammasome and ROS (reactive oxygen species) production in macrophages, as inhibition of NLRP3 by MCC950 and reduction of ROS production by N-acetylcysteine blocked NLRP3 activation, IL-1β induction, and fibroblast activation and differentiation. Therefore, fibrogenic CNTs and silica, but not CB, elicit robust macrophage-guided myofibroblast transformation, which depends on the induction of IL-1β through the NLRP3 inflammasome pathway and the increased production of ROS in macrophages.


Carbon nanotube Silica IL-1β NLRP3 inflammasome ROS Macrophage Myofibroblast 



This work was funded to Q.M. by the Health Effects Laboratory Division and the Nanotechnology Research Center at National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, No. 8939050W.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare there are no competing financial interests. The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Receptor Biology Laboratory, Toxicology and Molecular Biology Branch, Health Effects Laboratory DivisionNational Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and PreventionMorgantownUSA

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