Exposure of the lung to radiation produces injury and inflammatory responses that result in microenvironmental alterations, which can promote the development of pneumonitis and/or pulmonary fibrosis. It has been shown that after other toxic insults, macrophages become phenotypically polarized in response to microenvironmental signals, orchestrating the downstream inflammatory responses. However, their contribution to the development of the late consequences of pulmonary radiation exposure remains unclear. To address this issue, fibrosis-prone C57BL/6J mice or pneumonitis-prone C3H/HeJ mice were whole-lung irradiated with 0 or 12.5 Gy and lung digests were collected between 3 and 26 weeks after radiation exposure. CD45+ leukocytes were isolated and characterized by flow cytometry, and alveolar, interstitial and infiltrating macrophages were also detected. Ly6C, expressed by pro-inflammatory monocytes and macrophages, and mannose receptor (CD206), a marker of alternative activation, were assessed in each subpopulation. While the total number of pulmonary macrophages was depleted at 3 weeks after lung irradiation relative to age-matched controls in both C57 and C3H mice, identification of discrete subpopulations showed that this loss in cell number occurred in the alveolar, but not the interstitial or infiltrating, subsets. In the alveolar macrophages of both C57 and C3H mice, this correlated with a loss in the proportion of cells that expressed CD206 and F4/80. In contrast, in interstitial and infiltrating macrophages, the proportion of cells expressing these markers was increased at several time points after irradiation, with this response generally more pronounced in C3H mice. Radiation exposure was also associated with elevations in the proportion of alveolar and interstitial macrophage subpopulations expressing Ly6C and F4/80, with this response occurring at earlier time points in C57 mice. Although the radiation dose used in this study was not isoeffective for the inflammatory response in the two strains, the differences observed in the responses of these discrete macrophage populations between the fibrosis-prone versus pneumonitis-prone mice nonetheless suggest a possible role for these cells in the development of long-term consequences of pulmonary radiation exposure.

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