Molecular Mechanisms of N-Acetylcysteine in RSV Infections and Air Pollution-Induced Alterations: A Scoping Review

August Wrotek, Artur Jerzy Badyda, Teresa Jackowska

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is a mucolytic agent with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is one of the most important etiological factors of lower respiratory tract infections, and exposure to air pollution appears to be additionally associated with higher RSV incidence and disease severity. We aimed to systematically review the existing literature to determine which molecular mechanisms mediate the effects of NAC in an RSV infection and air pollution, and to identify the knowledge gaps in this field. A search for original studies was carried out in three databases and a calibrated extraction grid was used to extract data on the NAC treatment (dose, timing), the air pollutant type, and the most significant mechanisms. We identified only 28 studies conducted in human cellular models (n = 18), animal models (n = 7), and mixed models (n = 3). NAC treatment improves the barrier function of the epithelium damaged by RSV and air pollution, and reduces the epithelial permeability, protecting against viral entry. NAC may also block RSV-activated phosphorylation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which promotes endocytosis and facilitates cell entry. EGFR also enhances the release of a mucin gene, MUC5AC, which increases mucus viscosity and causes goblet cell metaplasia; the effects are abrogated by NAC. NAC blocks virus release from the infected cells, attenuates the cigarette smoke- induced shift from necrosis to apoptosis, and reverses the block in IFN-γ-induced antiviral gene expression caused by the inhibited Stat1 phosphorylation. Increased synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines is induced by both RSV and air pollutants and is mediated by the nuclear factor kappa-B (NF-κB) and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling pathways that are activated in response to oxidative stress. MCP-1 (monocyte chemoattractant protein-1) and RANTES (regulated upon activation, expressed and secreted by normal T cells) partially mediate airway hyperresponsiveness (AHR), and therapeutic (but not preventive) NAC administration reduces the inflammatory response and has been shown to reduce ozone-induced AHR. Oxidative stress-induced DNA damage and cellular senescence, observed during RSV infection and exposure to air pollution, can be partially reversed by NAC administration, while data on the emphysema formation are disputed. The review identified potential common molecular mechanisms of interest that are affected by NAC and may alleviate both the RSV infection and the effects of air pollution. Data are limited and gaps in knowledge include the optimal timing or dosage of NAC administration, therefore future studies should clarify these uncertainties and verify its practical use.

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