Exposure to cockroach allergen is a strong risk factor for developing asthma. Asthma has been associated with allergen-induced airway epithelial damage and heightened oxidant stress. In this study, we investigated cockroach allergen–induced oxidative stress in airway epithelium and its underlying mechanisms. We found that cockroach extract (CRE) could induce reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, particularly mitochondrial-derived ROS, in human bronchial epithelial cells. We then used the RT2 Profiler PCR array and identified that cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) was the most significantly upregulated gene related to CRE-induced oxidative stress. miR-155, predicted to target COX-2, was increased in CRE-treated human bronchial epithelial cells, and was showed to regulate COX-2 expression. Moreover, miR-155 can bind COX-2, induce COX-2 reporter activity, and maintain mRNA stability. Furthermore, CRE-treated miR-155−/− mice showed reduced levels of ROS and COX-2 expression in lung tissues and PGE2 in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid compared with wild-type mice. These miR-155−/− mice also showed reduced lung inflammation and Th2/Th17 cytokines. In contrast, when miR-155−/− mice were transfected with adeno-associated virus carrying miR-155, the phenotypic changes in CRE-treated miR-155−/− mice were remarkably reversed, including ROS, COX-2 expression, lung inflammation, and Th2/Th17 cytokines. Importantly, plasma miR-155 levels were elevated in severe asthmatics when compared with nonasthmatics or mild-to-moderate asthmatics. These increased plasma miR-155 levels were also observed in asthmatics with cockroach allergy compared with those without cockroach allergy. Collectively, these findings suggest that COX-2 is a major gene related to cockroach allergen–induced oxidative stress and highlight a novel role of miR-155 in regulating the ROS–COX-2 axis in asthma.

Cockroach allergen exposure and sensitization is a particularly strong factor for developing allergic asthma and increases asthma morbidity (14). However, the mechanisms underlying cockroach allergen–induced asthma are poorly understood. Oxidative stress has been implicated in airway inflammation and is a determinant of asthma severity (58). In response to environmental pollutants (e.g., ultrafine particles, diesel exhaust particles, and smoking), epithelial and mucosal inflammatory cells may produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), contributing to the pathophysiology of allergic inflammation and asthma (912). Although studies are limited, several allergens have been shown to induce ROS production, such as cat dander (13), pollen (1416), and house dust mite (HDM) (17, 18), leading to allergic inflammation. Airway epithelial cells are the first line of defense against inhaled allergens, and epithelial cell activation is one of the hallmark characteristics of asthma (19). Recent studies suggest that HDM can induce ROS production and dampen antioxidant responses in bronchial epithelial cells (19), and ROS serve as a key checkpoint for IL-33 release by airway epithelia after exposure to Alternaria extract (20). We and others have shown that cockroach allergen can activate airway epithelial cells, thereby leading to allergic inflammation (2123). However, whether cockroach allergen can induce oxidative stress in airway epithelial cells and the related molecular mechanisms by which this induction may occur remain elusive.

Cyclooxygenase (COX) is an oxidative stress–associated gene and a key limiting enzyme catalyzing the production of PGE2 from arachidonic acid. An interaction has been suggested between ROS and COX-2 whereby COX-2 expression is triggered by ROS (2426). There are two isoforms of COX, COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is constitutively expressed in most tissues, whereas COX-2 is often induced during inflammation (27, 28) and is primarily responsible for the formation of PGs in immune cells. Both COX-2 and its catalyzed product PGE2 were upregulated during allergic inflammation in mouse models and asthmatic patients (2933). Importantly, it was shown that COX-2 regulates Th1, Th2, and Th17 cells (31, 34, 35), and PGE2 is associated with the exacerbation of allergen-induced lung inflammation (36), systemic inflammation (37), and IgE production in vivo (38). These findings support the hypothesis that the COX-2–PGE2 axis may play a critical role in regulating cockroach allergen–induced lung inflammation.

Recent studies have implicated microRNAs (miRNAs) as noninvasive biomarkers that play crucial roles in the regulation of cytokines and asthma pathogenesis (39). Several miRNAs, such as miR-146a, miR-155, miR-26b, miR-101, miR-137, miR-16, and miR-1297, have been suggested to target COX-2 and regulate COX-2 expression (4047). Of these, miR-155 was markedly increased in an allergen-induced model of asthma. Intriguingly, studies have shown that miR-155 enhanced COX-2 expression in asthmatic human airway smooth muscle cells (41) and is considered as a promising target for regulating COX-2 expression in colorectal and other cancers (48, 49). These findings suggest that miR-155 may also be a target for antagonizing COX-2 and allergic inflammation in asthma. In this study, we provided evidence of cockroach allergen–induced oxidative stress in airway epithelia and identified COX-2 as the most significantly upregulated gene related to oxidative stress. Moreover, we studied the epigenetic mechanisms by which miR-155 regulates COX-2 expression and provided supporting evidence for a direct functional interaction between miR-155 and COX-2. Furthermore, we found that miR-155 regulates COX-2 expression and lung inflammation in the cockroach allergen–induced mouse model of asthma. Finally, we show that severe asthmatic patients have higher levels of plasma miR-155 compared with those without asthma or asthmatics with mild-to-moderate asthma. Collectively, findings from these studies suggest a critical but previously unidentified role of miR-155 in regulating the functional axis of ROS–COX-2 in allergic asthma.

C57BL/6J and miR-155 knockout (miR-155−/−) mice were purchased from The Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, ME). Animals were maintained under specific pathogen-free conditions at the animal facility of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. All mice were used at 6–8 wk of age, and all experiments used age- and gender-matched controls. The experimental protocols in this study were reviewed and approved by the Animal Care and Use Committee at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

ROS were detected using the general and mitochondria-specific oxidative-sensitive fluorescent dyes CM-H2DCFDA (Thermo Fisher Scientific) and MitoSOX (Thermo Fisher Scientific), respectively. For flow cytometric analysis, human bronchial epithelial cell (NHBE) lines (American Type Culture Collection CRL-4051) were treated with 50 μg/ml cockroach extract (CRE) in the presence or absence of either the antioxidant N-acetyl cysteine (NAC; 1–10 mM) (Sigma-Aldrich) or the mitochondria-specific antioxidant MitoTEMPO (10–100 μM) (Sigma-Aldrich) 1 h prior to treatment in F-12K medium at 37°C in a 5% CO2 atmosphere. ROS production was assessed using a FACScalibur flow cytometer (BD Biosciences) for detection of CM-H2DCFDA and MitoSOX. Under the same conditions, ROS production in mitochondria was assessed with MitoSOX by fluorescence microscopy. In brief, cells were incubated with 5 μM MitoSOX and 0.1 μM MitoTracker (Thermo Fisher Scientific) for 30 min prior to CRE treatment. These cells were then imaged with a Nikon ETi fluorescence microscope. Fluorescence intensities were quantified using ImageJ (National Institutes of Health).

An air–liquid interface (ALI) culture system for human airway epithelial cells was used, which isolated epithelial cells from the central airways of human subjects (provided by Dr. A. Myers at Johns Hopkins Bayview Histology Core Laboratory). These central airways were obtained from human organ donors through the established U.S. provider International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine. These cells were cultured for 21 d to fully differentiate into mature epithelial cells, as manifested by the formation of more mucociliary epithelium (50, 51). These mature cells were then treated with CRE (B46; Stallergenes Greer Laboratories) and harvested at various time points, and total RNA was extracted for RT2 Profiler PCR array.

Total RNA was isolated with an RNeasy Plus Mini kit (Qiagen), and cDNA templates were synthesized with SuperScript II (Life Technologies) and then loaded on the Human Oxidative Stress RT2 Profiler PCR Array, which included 84 genes functionally involved with the cellular oxidative stress response. The samples were run on an ABI Prism 7300 (Applied Biosystems, Carlsbad, CA) sequence detection system, and data analysis was performed using RT2 Profiler PCR Array Data Analysis software version 2.5 (Qiagen).

Quantitative RT-PCR (qRT-PCR) was performed in triplicate using SYBRGreen Universal 2× quantitative PCR Master Mix (Thermo Fisher Scientific) on an ABI Prism 7300 detection system. miR-155 (human, identifier: 002623 and mouse, identifier: 002571) was measured using TaqMan Gene Expression Master Mix (Thermo Fisher Scientific). Data were analyzed using the 2−ΔΔCT method as described by Livak and Schmittgen (52). The mRNA and miRNA levels were normalized to the internal control gene β-actin and U6 small nuclear RNA, respectively (53). Primer sequences are available upon request.

Cells were collected and lysed in radioimmunoprecipitation assay buffer (Sigma-Aldrich) containing Protease and Phosphatase Inhibitor Cocktails (Roche). Protein concentration was measured using a BCA Protein Assay kit (Pierce). Aliquots of 30–50 μg of protein samples were used for SDS-PAGE electrophoresis and then transferred to a polyvinylidene difluoride membrane (Invitrogen). After blocking with 5% nonfat milk in TBST, the membrane was incubated with anti–COX-2 (ab23672; Abcam) or anti–β-actin Abs. Blots were visualized with an HRP-conjugated secondary Ab (Santa Cruz Biotechnology) and ECL Western blotting detection system (GE Healthcare Life Sciences).

Generation of a cockroach allergen–induced mouse model of asthma and analysis of lung inflammation was established as described previously (21, 54).

Bronchoalveolar lavage fluids (BALFs) were assessed by ELISA for cytokines (eBioscience) and PGE2 (Cayman Chemical) according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Cockroach allergen–specific IgE and IgG1 serum levels were analyzed by ELISA according to a standard protocol as previously described (54).

For immunofluorescence staining, sectioned lung tissues were first blocked using 5% BSA for 1 h, followed by incubation with anti–COX-2 (Ab23672; Abcam) and epithelial cell marker anti-EpCAM (Ab71916; Abcam) overnight at 4°C. Sample sections were then incubated with secondary Abs conjugated with Alexa Fluor dyes (Thermo Fisher Scientific) at room temperature for 1 h. Isotype-matched negative control Abs (R&D Systems) were used under the same conditions. Nuclei were counterstained with DAPI (Thermo Fisher Scientific). Sections were mounted with the ProLong Gold Antifade Kit (Molecular Probes, Grand Island, NY) and observed with a Nikon Eclipse Ti-U microscope equipped with a DS-Fi2 camera (Nikon). The detection of intracellular superoxide in lung tissues was carried out using dihydroethidium (DHE) (Thermo Fisher Scientific). To determine the fluorescence signal in tissue sections, fluorescent positive cells in five different high-power fields from each slide were quantified using ImageJ version 1.50e (National Institutes of Health) and presented as mean fluorescence intensity per square micrometer. Two to three slides from each sample were used for analysis.

An adeno-associated virus (AAV) vector encoding the enhanced GFP reporter and expressing miR-155 (AAV-CMV-miR-155-eGFP), driven by the CMV promoter, was generated in SignaGen. The methods for the transfection of AAV into miR-155−/− mice and detection of GFP expression were described previously (54).

Human miR-155 mimic, antagomir, and their corresponding negative controls were purchased from Thermo Fisher Scientific. Transfection of the miRNA mimics was performed using Lipofectamine RNAiMAX (Thermo Fisher Scientific).

A COX-2 reporter downstream of firefly luciferase in a vector that also contained Renilla luciferase (pEZX vector) was obtained from GeneCopoeia (Rockville, MD), and the dual luciferase system was used to adjust for transfection efficiency. All analyses were performed using HEK293 cells (American Type Culture Collection). Briefly, cells were seeded in a six-well plate, and 50 ng of reporter plasmid or parent vector was transfected with 50 ng of a miR-155 mimic or miRNA Allstars Negative Control (Qiagen) using Attractene (Qiagen) per the manufacturer’s instructions. Cells were harvested, and dual luciferase assays were performed using the Promega Dual Luciferase Assay kit per the manufacturer’s protocol. Luminescence was measured using a Tecan SPECTRAFluor Plus instrument. After normalization of the Renilla:firefly signal, the effects of miR-155 and the negative control on the parent and COX-2 reporters were assessed.

A synthetic miR-155 containing a biotin at the 3′ end (or a negative control cel–miR-39 biotinylated miRNA, synthesized by Integrated DNA Technologies) was annealed with a complementary strand (Integrated DNA Technologies). Twenty nanograms of the duplex was incubated with cell lysates of airway epithelial cells (10 million cells), and miR–mRNA complexes were isolated using streptavidin beads. After acid-phenol chloroform isolation and isopropanol precipitation of RNA, samples were reverse transcribed using the High-Capacity Reverse Transcription Kit (Thermo Fisher Scientific). The quantitative PCR analysis was performed by using COX-2 primers to identify bound mRNA, and the enrichment was analyzed by the fold change in miR-155 pulldown versus that of the negative control miRNA.

A549 cells were transfected with miR-155 mimics or control miRNA. After 48 h, these cells were treated with actinomycin D (5 μg/ml; Sigma-Aldrich), and total RNAs were then isolated at 0, 0.5, 1, 2, and 6 h. The levels of COX-2 mRNA were detected with RT-PCR, and the RNA half-life (t1/2) was calculated by linear regression analysis.

Detailed descriptions for categorization of study subjects have been previously described (55, 56). Briefly, asthma was defined by a documented history of physician-diagnosed asthma, a forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) increase of 12% and 200 ml at least once within the last 2 y, or positive methacholine challenge. In addition, subjects were classified as moderate persistent or severe persistent based on current National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute guidelines. Allergy status was determined by clinical history of aeroallergen sensitivity and a multiallergen IgE test (ImmunoCAP or skin prick test). Allergic rhinitis was defined by allergic status and a clinical history consistent with allergic rhinitis (one or more: nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, eye redness, or eye watering). The study of human subjects was approved by the institutional review boards of Penn State College of Medicine.

Blood was collected by venipuncture in an EDTA purple-top tube and then centrifuged at 3000 rpm × g in a clinical centrifuge to isolate plasma. For isolation of total RNA, 2 μl of 50-nM synthetic cel–miR-39 was added as a “spike-in” normalization control to 500 μl of plasma (57). Afterwards, 1.5 ml of TRIzol (Life Technologies) reagent was added, followed by 1.5 ml of 100% EtOH. Total RNA was isolated using Direct-zol RNA columns (Zymo Research) according to the manufacturer’s protocol. RNA concentration was measured via A260/280 using a NanoDrop Lite Spectrophotometer (Thermo Fisher Scientific). The isolated RNA was reverse transcribed to cDNA using the qScript microRNA cDNA Synthesis Kit (Quanta BioSciences). Quantification of miRNAs was performed by qRT-PCR on a CFX384 Real-Time System (Bio-Rad Laboratories) by using stem-loop primers. Levels of miRNAs were expressed as copy number per microliter, as determined by a standard curve generated from multiple dilutions of known concentrations of synthesized miR-39.

Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM for each group. Statistical significance for normally distributed samples was assessed using an independent two-tailed Student t test or with ANOVA. Nonnormally distributed samples were analyzed by Wilcoxon rank–sum test. Associations between miRNA expression and clinical variables were analyzed by linear regression analysis. All analyses were performed with GraphPad Prism version 5.1 software (GraphPad Software, La Jolla, CA). A p value <0.05 was considered statistically significant for all analyses.

ROS are an important mediator that may contribute to oxidative damage and chronic inflammation in allergic diseases (22). To determine whether cockroach allergen can induce ROS generation in airway epithelial cells, intracellular ROS production was detected in NHBEs after exposure to CRE. Compared with untreated cells, intracellular ROS production was increased after treatment with CRE, as detected by flow cytometry with CM-H2DCFDA (Fig. 1A, 1B). The increased ROS were markedly abated by NAC in a dose-dependent manner (Fig. 1C). Next, we used MitoTEMPO, a mitochondria-specific antioxidant, to determine whether mitochondrial ROS are a major source for the CRE-induced ROS. As expected, the CRE-induced ROS were remarkably blocked when MitoTEMPO was used (Fig. 1D). This finding was further confirmed by directly detecting mitochondrial ROS expression with MitoSOX, a fluorescent mitochondrial ROS reporter, in CRE-treated NHBEs using coimmunostaining (Fig. 1E). We found that CRE induced the generation of mitochondrial ROS, which was abolished by either NAC or MitoTEMPO (Fig. 1F). These results were also confirmed in A549 cells (Supplemental Fig. 1). Collectively, these findings suggest that CRE can induce ROS production, particularly mitochondrial-derived ROS in airway epithelial cells.

FIGURE 1.

Cockroach allergen–induced ROS in NHBEs. (A) Detection of intracellular ROS production with CM-H2DCFDA by flow cytometry. (B) CRE-induced intracellular ROS production and its inhibition by NAC. (C) Dose-dependent inhibition of CRE-induced ROS generation by different doses of NAC. (D) CRE-induced intracellular ROS production and its inhibition by MitoTEMPO. (E) Detection of mitochondrial ROS with MitoSOX by coimmunofluorescence staining for MitoTracker (green) and MitoSOX (red) (original magnification ×20). (F) Quantitative data for MitoSOX expression. Data were from three independent experiments (n = 3). Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

FIGURE 1.

Cockroach allergen–induced ROS in NHBEs. (A) Detection of intracellular ROS production with CM-H2DCFDA by flow cytometry. (B) CRE-induced intracellular ROS production and its inhibition by NAC. (C) Dose-dependent inhibition of CRE-induced ROS generation by different doses of NAC. (D) CRE-induced intracellular ROS production and its inhibition by MitoTEMPO. (E) Detection of mitochondrial ROS with MitoSOX by coimmunofluorescence staining for MitoTracker (green) and MitoSOX (red) (original magnification ×20). (F) Quantitative data for MitoSOX expression. Data were from three independent experiments (n = 3). Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

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To identify genes that are related to cockroach allergen–induced oxidative stress, we performed PCR array analysis in cockroach allergen–treated ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells using the Human Oxidative Stress RT2 Profiler PCR Array, which includes a total of 84 genes related to oxidative stress. Human airway epithelial cells from an ALI culture system were treated with CRE for 2, 4, and 24 h, respectively, and total RNA was extracted for RT2 Profiler PCR array analysis. We found that COX-2 was the only gene significantly upregulated among all tested genes when 2-fold cutoff was applied at 2 h (Fig. 2A) and 4 h (Supplemental Fig. 2A). To determine whether LPS in CRE contributes to the increased COX-2 level, CRE was pretreated with polymyxin to neutralize or absorb LPS and then used to treat the ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells. No difference was noted for CRE-induced COX-2 expression in these airway epithelial cells with or without polymyxin pretreatment (Fig. 2B). The increased COX-2 expression was further observed in these airway epithelial cells after exposure to natural purified cockroach allergen Bla g 2 by RT-PCR (Fig. 2C). Given that previous studies have shown that ROS can trigger COX-2 expression (2426), we used NHBEs that are considered appropriate for the mechanistic studies and detected COX-2 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs in the presence or absence of NAC or MitoTEMPO by Western blot analysis (Fig. 2D, 2E). Interestingly, a significant inhibition of CRE-induced COX-2 expression was observed for NAC and MitoTEMPO treatments. These results were also observed in CRE-treated A549 cells (Supplemental Fig. 2B, 2C), suggesting that COX-2 may be a major gene participating in cockroach-induced oxidative stress in airway epithelial cells.

FIGURE 2.

Identification of genes related to oxidative stress by the Human Oxidative Stress RT2 Profiler PCR Array. (A) PCR Arrays revealed up- and downregulated genes in ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells treated with or without CRE (n = 84). x-axis: medium; y-axis: CRE; Cutoff: ≥2-fold change. (B) RT-PCR analysis of COX-2 expression in CRE-treated ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells in the presence or absence of polymyxin (n = 3). (C) RT-PCR analysis of COX-2 expression in Bla g 2–treated ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells (n = 3). (D) Western blot analysis of COX-2 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs in the presence or absence of NAC or MitoTEMPO. (E) Quantitative data for COX-2 expression relative to expression of β-actin. MT, MitoTEMPO. Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

FIGURE 2.

Identification of genes related to oxidative stress by the Human Oxidative Stress RT2 Profiler PCR Array. (A) PCR Arrays revealed up- and downregulated genes in ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells treated with or without CRE (n = 84). x-axis: medium; y-axis: CRE; Cutoff: ≥2-fold change. (B) RT-PCR analysis of COX-2 expression in CRE-treated ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells in the presence or absence of polymyxin (n = 3). (C) RT-PCR analysis of COX-2 expression in Bla g 2–treated ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells (n = 3). (D) Western blot analysis of COX-2 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs in the presence or absence of NAC or MitoTEMPO. (E) Quantitative data for COX-2 expression relative to expression of β-actin. MT, MitoTEMPO. Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

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To define the molecular mechanisms responsible for the CRE-induced COX-2 expression in airway epithelium, we tested the epigenetic regulation of COX-2 expression by miR-155. Recent studies have shown that miR-155 enhances COX-2 expression in human asthmatic airway smooth muscle cells (41). Our in silico analysis predicted that there are at least three potential miR-155 binding sites in the 3′-untranslated region (UTR) of COX-2 (e.g., +2321–2332, +2398–2420, and +2424–2447 relative to the transcriptional start site) (Fig. 3A). To determine a potential interaction between miR-155 and COX-2 expression, we examined miR-155 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs. We found that miR-155 expression was increased in CRE-treated and COX-2–upregulated NHBEs (Fig. 3B). Similarly, the increased expression of miR-155 was suppressed when either NAC (Fig. 3C) or MitoTEMPO (Fig. 3D) was used. Next, we investigated whether miR-155 regulates COX-2 expression in epithelial cells. Different doses of synthetic miR-155 mimic or negative control miRNA were transfected into NHBEs for 48 h, and expression of COX-2 was determined by qRT-PCR. Compared with controls, cells transfected with the miR-155 mimic showed enhanced levels of COX-2 expression (Fig. 3E). In contrast, cells transfected with miR-155 antagomir showed reduced levels of COX-2 expression (Fig. 3F). Interestingly, the increased expression of COX-2 in miR-155 mimic–transfected NHBEs was further enhanced after exposure to CRE (Fig. 3G). However, the CRE-induced expression of COX-2 was significantly inhibited in miR-155 antagomir–transfected NHBEs compared with those transfected with antagomir control (Fig. 3H). Taken together, these data indicate that cockroach allergen can induce miR-155 production, which may promote COX-2 expression in airway epithelial cells.

FIGURE 3.

miR-155 upregulates COX2 expression. (A) In silico–predicted miR-155 binding sites in the 3′-UTR region of the human COX-2 gene. (B) RT-PCR analysis of miR-155 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs. (C and D) RT-PCR analysis of miR-155 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs in the presence or absence of NAC (C) or MitoTEMPO (D). (E and F) RT-PCR analysis of COX-2 expression in miR-155 mimic–transfected (E) and miR-155 antagomir–transfected (F) NHBEs. (G and H) Expression of COX-2 in CRE- or PBS-treated miR-155 mimic–transfected (G) and miR-155 antagomir–transfected (H) NHBEs. Data are representative of three independent experiments (n = 3 per condition). Data represent mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

FIGURE 3.

miR-155 upregulates COX2 expression. (A) In silico–predicted miR-155 binding sites in the 3′-UTR region of the human COX-2 gene. (B) RT-PCR analysis of miR-155 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs. (C and D) RT-PCR analysis of miR-155 expression in CRE-treated NHBEs in the presence or absence of NAC (C) or MitoTEMPO (D). (E and F) RT-PCR analysis of COX-2 expression in miR-155 mimic–transfected (E) and miR-155 antagomir–transfected (F) NHBEs. (G and H) Expression of COX-2 in CRE- or PBS-treated miR-155 mimic–transfected (G) and miR-155 antagomir–transfected (H) NHBEs. Data are representative of three independent experiments (n = 3 per condition). Data represent mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

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To determine whether miR-155 is able to directly bind COX-2 mRNA and regulate its function, we developed a miR–mRNA pulldown assay to identify binding partners of miRNA, as outlined in Fig. 4A. Using this method, COX-2 mRNA was identified in isolated miR-155–mRNA complexes from A549 cells (Fig. 4B), suggesting that there is direct binding between miR-155 and COX-2 in these epithelial cells. We next examined the regulation of miR-155 on COX-2 activity by luciferase reporter assay (58). Luciferase reporter constructs were created by cloning the 3′UTR of COX-2 with miR-155–predicted binding sites into the pmir-GLO firefly luciferase plasmid (pmir-GLO-3′UTR-COX-2). The construct alone without the putative target was used as a negative control. A549 cells were transfected with miR-155 mimic for 24 h, with reporter plasmids for another 24 h, and the relative luciferase activity was then detected. Compared with those transfected with negative control vector, cells transfected with the miR-155 mimic showed increased luciferase activity (Fig. 4C). In addition, we analyzed whether miR-155 affects COX-2 mRNA stability. A549 cells were transfected with miR-155 mimic or negative control for 48 h, followed by actinomycin D treatment, and COX-2 mRNA levels were analyzed at various time points by RT-PCR. We observed that COX-2 mRNA was more stable in cells expressing the miR-155 mimic compared with those with the miRNA control (Fig. 4D), demonstrating that miR-155 could affect COX-2 mRNA stability.

FIGURE 4.

miR-155 binds COX-2 mRNA and upregulates COX-2 luciferase activity and mRNA stability. (A) Schematic of technology developed to identify miR–mRNA interaction. (B) Enrichment of COX-2 mRNA in isolated miR-155–mRNA complexes from A549 cells. (C) Regulation by miR-155 of COX-2 activity by the luciferase reporter assay. Luciferase reporter constructs were created by cloning the 3′UTR of COX-2 with miR-155–predicted binding sites into the pmir-GLO firefly luciferase plasmid. The construct alone with no putative target was used as a negative control. (D) Regulation by miR-155 of COX-2 miRNA stability in A549 cells (n = 3). A549 cells were treated with 10 nM miR-155 mimic for 48 h, followed by treatment with actinomycin D (5 μg/ml). Relative levels of COX-2 mRNA were determined using qRT-PCR. Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05.

FIGURE 4.

miR-155 binds COX-2 mRNA and upregulates COX-2 luciferase activity and mRNA stability. (A) Schematic of technology developed to identify miR–mRNA interaction. (B) Enrichment of COX-2 mRNA in isolated miR-155–mRNA complexes from A549 cells. (C) Regulation by miR-155 of COX-2 activity by the luciferase reporter assay. Luciferase reporter constructs were created by cloning the 3′UTR of COX-2 with miR-155–predicted binding sites into the pmir-GLO firefly luciferase plasmid. The construct alone with no putative target was used as a negative control. (D) Regulation by miR-155 of COX-2 miRNA stability in A549 cells (n = 3). A549 cells were treated with 10 nM miR-155 mimic for 48 h, followed by treatment with actinomycin D (5 μg/ml). Relative levels of COX-2 mRNA were determined using qRT-PCR. Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05.

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Subsequently, we asked whether miR-155 plays a role in the regulation of COX-2 in an allergen-induced mouse model of asthma. We used wild-type (WT) and miR-155−/− mice to develop a CRE-induced mouse model of asthma (Fig. 5A). We tested whether cockroach allergen can induce ROS production in the mouse model using the ROS fluorescent indicator DHE (Fig. 5B). Increased levels of ROS were noted in CRE-sensitized and challenged WT mice compared with PBS-treated controls (Fig. 5C). Interestingly, the increased ROS were significantly reduced in miR-155−/− mice. Furthermore, COX-2 expression was also detected in airway epithelial cells by costaining for COX-2 and EpCAM, a marker for epithelial cells (Fig. 5D). Similar to ROS, lung sections from CRE-treated mice showed significantly increased expression of COX-2 in airway epithelial cells compared with those treated with PBS (Fig. 5E). Compared with WT mice, lung tissues from miR-155−/− mice showed much lower expression of COX-2. Reduced expression of miR-155 and COX-2 was also observed in lung tissues of PBS or CRE-treated miR-155−/− mice when compared with WT mice (Supplemental Fig. 3). Additionally, the levels of PGE2 in BALFs mirrored those of COX-2 expression in those mice (Fig. 5F). miR-155−/− mice displayed much lower levels of PGE2 compared with CRE-treated WT mice.

FIGURE 5.

miR-155 regulates epithelial COX-2 expression levels in a mouse model of asthma. (A) Experimental model of cockroach allergen–induced asthma. (B) Representative images of DHE-stained airways of PBS- or CRE-challenged WT and miR-155−/− mice. Scale bar, 100 μm. (C) Quantitative data for ROS expression. (D) Colocalization of COX-2 (green) and EpCAM (red) in the lung sections of WT and miR-155−/− mice by immunofluorescence staining. Nuclei were stained with DAPI (blue). Scale bar, 100 μm. (E) Quantitative data for COX-2 expression. (F) Levels of PGE2 in BALFs of PBS- or CRE-treated WT and miR-155−/− mice. Quantification of gene expression in lung tissues was performed with ImageJ version 1.50e. n = 9–12 mice per group pooled from two independent experiments. Data represent the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

FIGURE 5.

miR-155 regulates epithelial COX-2 expression levels in a mouse model of asthma. (A) Experimental model of cockroach allergen–induced asthma. (B) Representative images of DHE-stained airways of PBS- or CRE-challenged WT and miR-155−/− mice. Scale bar, 100 μm. (C) Quantitative data for ROS expression. (D) Colocalization of COX-2 (green) and EpCAM (red) in the lung sections of WT and miR-155−/− mice by immunofluorescence staining. Nuclei were stained with DAPI (blue). Scale bar, 100 μm. (E) Quantitative data for COX-2 expression. (F) Levels of PGE2 in BALFs of PBS- or CRE-treated WT and miR-155−/− mice. Quantification of gene expression in lung tissues was performed with ImageJ version 1.50e. n = 9–12 mice per group pooled from two independent experiments. Data represent the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

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Next, we assessed whether miR-155 regulates airway inflammation. We found that CRE-treated miR-155−/− mice displayed decreased recruitment of inflammatory cells to the lungs, with dense peribronchial infiltrates and goblet cell hyperplasia on histological examination (Fig. 6A, H&E and periodic acid–Schiff [PAS]) compared with WT mice. CRE-treated miR-155−/− mice showed reduced numbers of total inflammatory cells (Fig. 6B), specifically eosinophils in the BALF. These CRE-sensitized and -challenged miR-155−/− mice also produced lower serum titers of cockroach allergen–specific IgE and IgG1 (Fig. 6C). Furthermore, compared with WT mice, BALF from these miR-155−/− mice showed lower levels of IL-4 and IL-13 (Fig. 6D). No differences were observed for IFN-γ and IL-17A between CRE-treated WT and miR-155−/− mice. After the levels of Th2/Th17 cytokines were further examined in lung tissues by RT-PCR, we found a reduced expression not only for IL-4 and IL-13 but also for IL-17 in CRE-treated miR-155−/− mice (Fig. 6E). Collectively, these results suggest that miR-155 may act to exacerbate Th2-associated lung inflammation through the upregulation of COX-2 expression.

FIGURE 6.

miR-155 regulates lung inflammation in a mouse model of asthma. (A) Paraffin tissue sections of lungs from PBS- or CRE-challenged WT and miR-155−/− mice were stained with H&E (upper panel) and PAS (lower panel). Scale bar, 100 μm. (B) Mouse BALF total and differential cell counts. (C) Serum levels of cockroach allergen–specific IgE and IgG1. (D) Levels of cytokines in BALFs. (E) RT-PCR analysis of Th1, Th2, and Th17 cytokines in the lung tissues. n = 9–12 mice per group pooled from two independent experiments. Data represent the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

FIGURE 6.

miR-155 regulates lung inflammation in a mouse model of asthma. (A) Paraffin tissue sections of lungs from PBS- or CRE-challenged WT and miR-155−/− mice were stained with H&E (upper panel) and PAS (lower panel). Scale bar, 100 μm. (B) Mouse BALF total and differential cell counts. (C) Serum levels of cockroach allergen–specific IgE and IgG1. (D) Levels of cytokines in BALFs. (E) RT-PCR analysis of Th1, Th2, and Th17 cytokines in the lung tissues. n = 9–12 mice per group pooled from two independent experiments. Data represent the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

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To further determine whether miR-155 can directly promote cockroach allergen–induced inflammation, we generated an AAV vector expressing miR-155 [AAV–CMV–miR-155–eGFP (56)] and infected miR-155−/− mice according to the experimental approach in Fig. 7A. The AAV infection in these transfected mice, particularly airway epithelial cells, was confirmed on day 35 postinfection by coimmunostaining GFP with EpCaM (Fig. 7B) and flow cytometry analysis (Fig. 7C). Overexpression of miR-155 was confirmed in lung tissues of AAV-miR-155-GFP–infected mice compared with those infected with AAV-Mock-GFP or uninfected (Fig. 7D). Those AAV-infected mice were then used for generating cockroach allergen–induced mouse model of asthma following the protocol illustrated in Fig. 7A. As expected, CRE-triggered peribronchial inflammation (H&E) and goblet cell hyperplasia (PAS), and ROS generation was exacerbated in the AAV-miR-155–infected mice compared with those AAV mock-infected controls (Fig. 7E). A similar pattern was also observed for COX-2 expression by immunostaining (Supplemental Fig. 4). Furthermore, BALF from AAV-miR-155–infected mice displayed more total inflammatory cells with a prominent increase in eosinophils (Fig. 7F). Serum from those mice had higher levels of CRE-specific IgE and IgG1 (Fig. 7G). BALF from CRE-treated AAV-miR-155–infected mice had higher levels of IL-4, IL-13, and IL-17A, but no changes for IFN-γ (Fig. 7H). Increased Th2/Th17 cytokine expression was also confirmed in the lung tissues by RT-PCR (Fig. 7I). Collectively, the results suggest that miR-155 may promote cockroach allergen–induced lung allergic inflammation.

FIGURE 7.

miR-155−/− mice infected with AAV-miR-155 reversed the decreased lung inflammation in cockroach allergen–induced mouse model. (A) Experimental setup for mice infected with AAV-miR-155-GFP or AAV-Mock-GFP and subsequent mouse model of asthma. (B) Detection of GFP (green) in airway epithelial cells (red) of AAV-GFP–infected or noninfected mice by immunostaining. Nuclei were stained with DAPI (blue). Scale bar, 100 μm. (C) Detection of AAV-GFP in lung tissue cells of AAV-GFP–infected or noninfected mice by flow cytometry. (D) RT-PCR analysis of miR-155 expression in lung tissues of AAV-infected or noninfected mice. (E) Paraffin tissue sections of lung tissues from PBS- or CRE-challenged AAV-Mock– or AAV-miR-155–infected miR-155−/− mice were stained with H&E (upper panel), PAS (middle panel), and DHE (lower panel). Scale bar, 100 μm. (F) Mouse BALF total and eosinophil cell counts. (G) Serum levels of cockroach allergen–specific IgE and IgG1. (H) Levels of cytokines in BALFs. (I) RT-PCR analysis of Th1, Th2, and Th17 cytokines in the lung tissues. n = 6–10 mice per group pooled from two independent experiments. Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

FIGURE 7.

miR-155−/− mice infected with AAV-miR-155 reversed the decreased lung inflammation in cockroach allergen–induced mouse model. (A) Experimental setup for mice infected with AAV-miR-155-GFP or AAV-Mock-GFP and subsequent mouse model of asthma. (B) Detection of GFP (green) in airway epithelial cells (red) of AAV-GFP–infected or noninfected mice by immunostaining. Nuclei were stained with DAPI (blue). Scale bar, 100 μm. (C) Detection of AAV-GFP in lung tissue cells of AAV-GFP–infected or noninfected mice by flow cytometry. (D) RT-PCR analysis of miR-155 expression in lung tissues of AAV-infected or noninfected mice. (E) Paraffin tissue sections of lung tissues from PBS- or CRE-challenged AAV-Mock– or AAV-miR-155–infected miR-155−/− mice were stained with H&E (upper panel), PAS (middle panel), and DHE (lower panel). Scale bar, 100 μm. (F) Mouse BALF total and eosinophil cell counts. (G) Serum levels of cockroach allergen–specific IgE and IgG1. (H) Levels of cytokines in BALFs. (I) RT-PCR analysis of Th1, Th2, and Th17 cytokines in the lung tissues. n = 6–10 mice per group pooled from two independent experiments. Data are expressed as the mean ± SEM. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

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To determine whether miR-155 is associated with human allergic asthma, we measured the expression of miR-155 in the plasma of human asthmatics and nonasthmatic controls. Detailed characteristics of the study subjects are presented in Table I. The cohort of subjects included nonallergic, nonasthmatic subjects (n = 22); nonasthmatic subjects with allergic rhinitis (n = 25; n = 8 cockroach allergic); and asthmatic subjects (n = 62). The asthmatic subjects consisted of n = 29 mild-to-moderate asthmatics (n = 6 cockroach allergic) and n = 33 severe asthmatics (n = 13 cockroach allergic). The levels of plasma miR-155 were lower in patients with allergic rhinitis compared with the nonasthmatic subjects, consistent with our previous observation (Fig. 8A). Interestingly, when comparing plasma miR-155 levels in asthmatics stratified by severity, levels were highest in severe asthmatics, lower in mild-to-moderate asthmatics, and lowest in allergic rhinitis. We next asked whether cockroach allergy status was associated with higher levels of plasma miR-155 in asthma. In severe asthmatics, the level of miR-155 was higher in subjects with cockroach allergy versus those without (Fig. 8B). The levels were not different in cockroach-allergic versus nonallergic mild-to-moderate asthmatics. In addition, the level was higher in cockroach-allergic, severe asthmatics compared with cockroach-allergic, mild-to moderate asthmatics. Together, these data suggest that cockroach sensitivity and asthma severity may affect plasma miR-155 levels. We next sought to determine whether miR-155 levels were associated with blood eosinophil levels as a marker of type 2 inflammation. We found higher levels of plasma miR-155 in these asthmatics with high eosinophils based on the median value in our population (≥200 cells per μl) when compared with those with low eosinophils (<200 cells per μl) (Fig. 8C).

Table I.
Demographic and respiratory health characteristics of the study population
CharacteristicsNonasthmatic (n = 27)Asthmatic (n = 32)p Value
Age, mean (SD) 45.5 (15.2) 43.9 (14.6) 0.917 
Gender, male/female 8/19 13/19 0.424 
BMI, mean (SD) 28.7 (6.6) 28.4 (5.9) 0.869 
Allergic rhinitis, n (%) 17 (63) 26 (81) 0.147 
Asthma duration (y), mean (SD) N/A 17.3 (11.1) N/A 
Blood eos (cells/μl), mean (SD) Not done 216.8 (150.1) N/A 
Total IgE (kU/l) Not done 248.3 (264.3) N/A 
FVC (l), mean (SD) 3.77 (1.65) 3.72 (1.17) 0.899 
FVC%, mean (SD) 98.9 (20.9) 89.4 (17.4) 0.083 
FEV1 (l), mean (SD) 3.02 (1.54) 2.66 (1.11) 0.336 
FEV1 %, mean (SD) 92.9 (0.2) 77.2 (23.5) 0.021 
FEV1/FVC ratio 0.76 (0.1) 0.68 (0.14) 0.045 
FEV1 % change after BD, mean (SD) Not done 14.8 (13.2) N/A 
ACQ score, mean (SD) Not done 0.99 (0.58) N/A 
CharacteristicsNonasthmatic (n = 27)Asthmatic (n = 32)p Value
Age, mean (SD) 45.5 (15.2) 43.9 (14.6) 0.917 
Gender, male/female 8/19 13/19 0.424 
BMI, mean (SD) 28.7 (6.6) 28.4 (5.9) 0.869 
Allergic rhinitis, n (%) 17 (63) 26 (81) 0.147 
Asthma duration (y), mean (SD) N/A 17.3 (11.1) N/A 
Blood eos (cells/μl), mean (SD) Not done 216.8 (150.1) N/A 
Total IgE (kU/l) Not done 248.3 (264.3) N/A 
FVC (l), mean (SD) 3.77 (1.65) 3.72 (1.17) 0.899 
FVC%, mean (SD) 98.9 (20.9) 89.4 (17.4) 0.083 
FEV1 (l), mean (SD) 3.02 (1.54) 2.66 (1.11) 0.336 
FEV1 %, mean (SD) 92.9 (0.2) 77.2 (23.5) 0.021 
FEV1/FVC ratio 0.76 (0.1) 0.68 (0.14) 0.045 
FEV1 % change after BD, mean (SD) Not done 14.8 (13.2) N/A 
ACQ score, mean (SD) Not done 0.99 (0.58) N/A 

ACQ, Asthma Control Questionnaire; BD, bronchodilator; BMI, body mass index; eos, eosinophil; FVC, forced vital capacity; N/A, not applicable.

FIGURE 8.

Plasma levels of miR-155. (A) Plasma levels of miR-155 were detected in healthy (n = 30), allergic rhinitis (AR, n = 31), mild-to-moderate asthmatic (Mild-Mod, n = 29), and severe asthmatic (n = 33) human patients by real-time PCR analysis. (B) Plasma levels of miR-155 were measured in asthmatics with mild-to-moderate asthma (n = 29) or severe asthma (n = 33), with or without cockroach allergy (CR− or CR+, respectively). (C) Plasma miR-155 in asthmatics with high or low eosinophils based on the median value in our population (≥200 cells/μl). (D) Proposed model for cockroach allergen–induced ROS generation and miR-155 secretion, which upregulates COX-2 expression and subsequent Th2/Th17-associated allergic inflammation in allergic asthma.

FIGURE 8.

Plasma levels of miR-155. (A) Plasma levels of miR-155 were detected in healthy (n = 30), allergic rhinitis (AR, n = 31), mild-to-moderate asthmatic (Mild-Mod, n = 29), and severe asthmatic (n = 33) human patients by real-time PCR analysis. (B) Plasma levels of miR-155 were measured in asthmatics with mild-to-moderate asthma (n = 29) or severe asthma (n = 33), with or without cockroach allergy (CR− or CR+, respectively). (C) Plasma miR-155 in asthmatics with high or low eosinophils based on the median value in our population (≥200 cells/μl). (D) Proposed model for cockroach allergen–induced ROS generation and miR-155 secretion, which upregulates COX-2 expression and subsequent Th2/Th17-associated allergic inflammation in allergic asthma.

Close modal

This work is part of our overall mechanistic studies on cockroach allergen–induced allergic inflammation, with a specific focus on cockroach allergen–induced ROS generation and ROS-associated gene identification. ROS have been shown to be crucial in pollen-induced (16) and HDM-induced (59) allergic sensitization and asthma. In particular, ROS induced by HDM cause oxidative DNA damage and asthma-associated pathophysiology (14, 59). Recent studies have suggested that ROS in epithelial cells are a critical mediator of IL-33–dependent activation of innate airway type 2 immune responses to common airborne allergens (20, 60). Similar findings have also been found for cockroach allergen through the activation of proteinase-activated receptor 2, leading to the upregulation of the DUOX-2/ROS pathway in airway epithelial cells (61). Furthermore, we have recently reported that cockroach allergen induces ROS production and oxidative activation of calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) in mast cells, which leads to the exacerbation of lung inflammation (22). Interestingly, the increased ox-CaMKII in the airway epithelium of asthmatic patients has been linked to the severity of asthma (62). Observations made in this study demonstrated that cockroach allergen can induce ROS generation in airway epithelial cells. Although the intracellular sources of the ROS are not clear, mitochondria are known to be a major source of ROS that are induced by external stimuli (6365) and are associated with allergic inflammation in OVA-challenged mice (66). Indeed, we found that cockroach allergen–induced ROS in airway epithelial cells were significantly blocked by the mitochondria-specific antioxidant, MitoTEMPO. Furthermore, mitochondrial ROS were significantly increased in these cockroach allergen–treated airway epithelial cells. Thus, our studies provided further evidence that cockroach allergen can induce ROS production, particularly mitochondrial-derived ROS, which may serve as a critical mediator in regulating allergen-induced airway inflammation and asthma.

In this study, we have made a novel finding that COX-2 was the most significantly upregulated gene related to cockroach allergen–induced oxidative stress with the use of the Human Oxidative Stress RT2 Profiler PCR Array. A total of 84 genes related to oxidative stress are represented on this array, including glutathione peroxidases, peroxiredoxins, other peroxidases, and genes associated with ROS metabolism. The array made it possible to analyze the expression of a focused panel of genes related to oxidative stress. Another strength was the use of human airway epithelial cells from an ALI culture system. Epithelial cells in the ALI system can fully differentiate into mature epithelial cells, as manifested by the formation of greater levels of mucociliary epithelium (50, 51), and faithfully mimic the in vivo physiological setting. Intriguingly, COX-2 was a differential expression in the ALI-cultured human airway epithelial cells after exposure to cockroach allergen. To exclude the possibility that CRE-induced COX-2 expression may have been due to endotoxin present in the CRE, we used polymyxin to neutralize the effect of LPS present as contaminant on CRE. We found that airway epithelial cells treated with polymyxin-treated or untreated CRE showed similar results, suggesting that increased expression of COX-2 is due to cockroach allergen, but not LPS.

Furthermore, previous observations have suggested that ROS could induce COX-2 expression (23, 24) and that antioxidants could suppress COX-2 expression (67). Indeed, we found that cockroach allergen–induced COX-2 expression was significantly inhibited by antioxidants. Furthermore, given the increasingly recognized role of COX-2 in allergic inflammation in animal models and in humans with asthma (2933, 38), it is tempting to speculate that COX-2 could be an important oxidative stress–associated gene that might contribute to allergen-induced allergic inflammation. Thus, targeting of the regulation of COX-2 may yield therapeutic approaches for the treatment of allergic inflammation and asthma.

Our central finding is the epigenetic regulation of COX-2 by miR-155. miRNAs are small, noncoding RNAs that are important regulators of protein expression and cellular functions (68). Several miRNAs have been suggested to target COX-2 and modulate its expression (4047). Of these, miR-155 has been shown to enhance COX-2 expression in human asthmatic airway smooth muscle cells (41). However, no evidence was provided to demonstrate a direct interaction between miR-155 and COX-2. Our studies provide evidence for a direct link between cockroach allergen–induced COX-2 expression and miR-155. We first showed that miR-155 regulates COX-2 expression in either miR-155 mimic or miR-155 antagomir–transfected NHBEs. NHBEs with miR-155 mimic showed increased expression of COX-2 but with miR-155 antagomir displayed a reduced expression of COX-2. We then analyzed the binding of miR-155 to COX-2 using technology we developed to identify binding partners of miRNA by mixing biotinylated miRNA with cell lysates (55). We observed a significantly higher amount of COX-2 mRNA in isolated miR-155–mRNA complexes than in miR-control–mRNA complexes. Furthermore, we investigated whether miR-155 could regulate COX-2 activity using a luciferase reporter assay with a reporter plasmid containing the 3′UTR of COX-2 with miR-155–predicted binding sites. As expected, cells transfected with the reporter plasmid containing miR-155 binding sites showed significantly increased luciferase activity compared with those without binding sites. Lastly, we investigated the role of miR-155 in regulating COX-2 miRNA stability. Although we recognize that miRNAs are generally considered to negatively regulate target mRNA, more published studies have now increasingly indicated that miRNA oscillates between suppression and stimulation in response to specific cellular conditions, sequences, and cofactors (69, 70). Given that regulation of miRNA stability is an important regulatory mechanism for controlling gene expression, we specifically analyzed the effect of miR-155 on COX-2 miRNA stability. We found that COX-2 mRNA was much more stable in cells transfected with miR-155 compared with those transfected with a control mimic. These findings provide a novel epigenetic mechanism by which miR-155 regulates COX-2 activity and mRNA stability.

Most importantly, COX-2 regulation by miR-155 was also observed in our cockroach allergen–induced mouse model of asthma. We observed increased expression of ROS and COX-2 in the lung tissues, particularly airway epithelia of cockroach allergen–sensitized and –challenged mice. Intriguingly, these increased epithelial ROS and COX-2 were not observed in miR-155−/− mice. These results further supported our in vitro findings that miR-155 regulates COX-2 expression. Furthermore, we observed an increased expression of ROS in CRE-challenged WT mice, but the increased ROS were significantly reduced in miR-155−/−mice, suggesting that miR-155 may regulate ROS generation. Although detailed mechanisms are unclear, it is possible that miR-155 may not only directly target on COX-2 but can also directly induce ROS production to promote ROS-induced lung inflammation. Thus, we found that ROS production and lung inflammation were significantly reduced in miR-155−/− mice, raising the possibility that miR-155 might be an important player connecting ROS production and inflammation. However, it is also likely that the reduced ROS may not be directly regulated by miR-155 but may be regulated by a feed-forward circuit in the ROS generation. For example, the deletion of miR-155 may lead to a reduction of local inflammatory processes that leads to a secondary reduction of ROS generation.

It is well documented in studies that upregulated miR-155 is associated with the development of allergic asthma (47, 7173). Of these, the study by Zhang et al. reported that miR-155 was the most upregulated miRNAs in the lungs of allergen-challenged mice compared with control mice (72). Furthermore, Malmhall et al. (49) has recently provided evidence that miR‐155 is differentially expressed ex vivo in airways of allergic asthmatics compared with healthy controls and suggested that miR-155 may participate in the local immune response in allergic asthma (73). Recent studies have suggested that miR-155 is a critical regulator of type 2 innate lymphoid cells (74) and is a novel target in allergic asthma (75). In addition, previous studies have demonstrated an increased miR-155 expression in activated T cells and that miR-155 overexpression increases the numbers of activated CD4+ T cells with increased Th2- and Th17-derived cytokines, suggesting that miR-155 may regulate Th2/Th17-associated inflammation. In accordance with previous findings, we found that miR-155 is upregulated in the lung tissues of cockroach allergen–challenged mice, and miR-155 is critical in the cockroach allergen–induced Th2/Th17 cytokine production and lung inflammation. Taken together, our studies suggest a possible mechanism by which miR-155 regulates Th2/Th17 differentiation and activation, which may be mediated through the functional axis of COX-2–PGE2.

Finally, we showed the direct relevance of miR-155 to human asthma. We have previously demonstrated differential expression of plasma miR-155 in human subjects with asthma, allergic rhinitis, or neither (56). Building on these data, we recruited additional subjects, including those with severe asthma and cockroach allergy. We found that patients with severe asthma had higher levels of miR-155 when compared with mild-to-moderate asthmatics, allergic rhinitis, and nonasthmatic controls, suggesting that miR-155 may contribute to the severity of inflammation. It is interesting to note that plasma miR-155 levels were lower in subjects with allergic rhinitis compared with all other groups, including healthy controls. The underlying reason is not clear, but anti-inflammatory miRNA, such as miR-146a, are known to be upregulated by inflammatory stimuli as a potential feedback mechanism to limit inflammation (75). Along these lines, there is emerging evidence that miR-155 expression can also be downregulated by a number of stimuli (76, 77). It is possible that mechanisms exist to limit miR-155 expression in allergic rhinitis but that these mechanisms are overwhelmed as the extent and severity of inflammation increases, as could be the case in severe asthma. Further work will be needed to understand the mechanisms that govern miR-155 expression in allergic rhinitis and asthma.

As cockroach allergen is an important driver of allergic inflammation in asthma, we analyzed levels of plasma miR-155 in asthmatics with and without cockroach allergy. In severe asthmatics, miR-155 levels were higher in cockroach-allergic subjects compared with those without cockroach allergy. These data are in agreement with our observations in the mouse model and support the possibility that miR-155 may be a driver of cockroach-induced allergic airway inflammation. However, there are several limitations for this study. For example, although an increased plasma miR-155 was found in severe asthmatics, this may not directly reflect the changes in the local environment in the airway and lung tissues. Furthermore, we hypothesize that exposure to cockroach allergen, either a long duration or high exposure, played a role in inducing secretion of miR-155. Unfortunately, we do not yet have data on exposure to cockroach for these subjects to know whether exposure level relates to miR-155 levels. In addition, we do not know whether there is an intrinsic defect in cells that makes them susceptible to overexpress miR-155, and this will be a topic of future study.

In summary, our findings provide evidence that cockroach allergen exposure can induce oxidative stress in airway epithelia and subsequent allergic inflammation and asthma. Specifically, we identified COX-2 as a pivotal gene related to oxidative stress in airway epithelial cells and suggested a novel mechanism by which cockroach allergen–enhanced expression of COX-2 is dependent upon miR-155. We speculate that inhibition of miR-155 may block ROS-induced COX-2 expression and subsequent COX-2–mediated allergic inflammation and asthma (Fig. 8D). More importantly, these studies allow us to solidify the groundwork for future in-depth studies, with a focus on the regulation of COX-2 function by ROS and miR-155 via its receptors (e.g., EP2, EP4) and the mechanisms underlying COX-2–mediated epithelial cell activation and airway inflammation. Furthermore, it would be essential to explore the cellular sources of miR-155, which may serve as a critical mediator for cell–cell interactions. Taken together, our findings provide supporting evidence that COX-2 is a major gene related to cockroach-induced oxidative stress and further highlight a role for miR-155 in the pathogenesis of asthma through regulating the ROS–COX-2 axis.

We thank Beverly Plunkett for assistance regarding the ALI cultures of human airway epithelial cells. Additionally, we thank Dr. Allen Myers at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Histology Core Laboratory for providing isolated epithelial cells from central airways of human subjects. We thank Dr. Neeraj Sharma, Johns Hopkins University, for the kind gift of NHBEs.

This work was supported by grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (R01ES021739, R21 AI109062, and R21 AI121768) and the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC) (81628001) (to P.G.), the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Clinician Scientist Development Award (to F.T.I.), and NSFC 81402840 and the National Science Foundation of Jiangsu Province, China (BK20130495) (to L.Q.). It was also supported by grants from the NSFC (81671561), the National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFC1305102), and the Shanghai Municipal Planning Commission of Science and Research Fund (201740065) (to Y. Zhou).

The online version of this article contains supplemental material.

Abbreviations used in this article:

AAV

adeno-associated virus

ALI

air–liquid interface

BALF

bronchoalveolar lavage fluid

COX

cyclooxygenase

CRE

cockroach extract

DHE

dihydroethidium

FEV1

forced expiratory volume in 1 s

HDM

house dust mite

miRNA

microRNA

NAC

N-acetyl cysteine

NHBE

human bronchial epithelial cell

PAS

periodic acid–Schiff

qRT-PCR

quantitative RT-PCR

ROS

reactive oxygen species

UTR

untranslated region

WT

wild-type.

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The authors have no financial conflicts of interest.

Supplementary data