Background: Stress, both acute and chronic, can impair cutaneous wound repair, which has previously been mechanistically ascribed to stress-induced elevations of cortisol. Here we aimed to examine an alternate explanation that the stress-induced hormone epinephrine directly impairs keratinocyte motility and wound re-epithelialization. Burn wounds are examined as a prototype of a high-stress, high-epinephrine, wound environment. Because keratinocytes express the β2-adrenergic receptor (β2AR), another study objective was to determine whether β2AR antagonists could block epinephrine effects on healing and improve wound repair. Methods and Findings: Migratory rates of normal human keratinocytes exposed to physiologically relevant levels of epinephrine were measured. To determine the role of the receptor, keratinocytes derived from animals in which the β2AR had been genetically deleted were similarly examined. The rate of healing of burn wounds generated in excised human skin in high and low epinephrine environments was measured. We utilized an in vivo burn wound model in animals with implanted pumps to deliver β2AR active drugs to study how these alter healing in vivo. Immunocytochemistry and immunoblotting were used to examine the up-regulation of catecholamine synthetic enzymes in burned tissue, and immunoassay for epinephrine determined the levels of this catecholamine in affected tissue and in the circulation. When epinephrine levels in the culture medium are elevated to the range found in burn-stressed animals, the migratory rate of both cultured human and murine keratinocytes is impaired (reduced by 76%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 56%-95% in humans, p < 0.001, and by 36%, 95% CI 24%-49% in mice, p = 0.001), and wound re-epithelialization in explanted burned human skin is delayed (by 23%, 95% CI 10%-36%, p = 0.001), as compared to cells or tissues incubated in medium without added epinephrine. This impairment is reversed by β2AR antagonists, is absent in murine keratinocytes that are genetically depleted of the β2AR, and is reproduced by incubation of keratinocytes with other β2AR-specific agonists. Activation of the β2AR in cultured keratinocytes signals the down-regulation of the AKT pathway, accompanied by a stabilization of the actin cytoskeleton and an increase in focal adhesion formation, resulting in a nonmigratory phenotype. Burn wound injury in excised human skin also rapidly up-regulates the intra-epithelial expression of the epinephrine synthesizing enzyme phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase, and tissue levels of epinephrine rise dramatically (15-fold) in the burn wounded tissue (values of epinephrine expressed as pg/ug protein ± standard error of the mean: unburned control, 0.6 ± 0.36; immediately postburn, 9.6 ± 1.58; 2 h postburn, 3.1 ± 1.08; 24 h post-burn, 6.7 ± 0.94). Finally, using an animal burn wound model (20% body surface in mice), we found that systemic treatment with βAR antagonists results in a significant increase (44%, 95% CI 27%-61%, p < 0.00000001) in the rate of burn wound re-epithelialization. Conclusions: This work demonstrates an alternate pathway by which stress can impair healing: by stress-induced elevation of epinephrine levels resulting in activation of the keratinocyte β2AR and the impairment of cell motility and wound re-epithelialization. Furthermore, since the burn wound locally generates epinephrine in response to wounding, epinephrine levels are locally, as well as systemically, elevated, and wound healing is impacted by these dual mechanisms. Treatment with beta adrenergic antagonists significantly improves the rate of burn wound re-epithelialization. This work suggests that specific β2AR antagonists may be apt, near-term translational therapeutic targets for enhancing burn wound healing, and may provide a novel, low-cost, safe approach to improving skin wound repair in the stressed individual.
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