Usually the dense extracellular structure in fibrotic tissues is described as extracellular matrix (ECM) or simply as collagen. However, fibrosis is not just fibrosis, which is already exemplified by the variant morphological characteristics of fibrosis due to viral versus cholestatic, autoimmune or toxic liver injury, with reticular, chicken wire and bridging fibrosis. Importantly, the overall composition of the ECM, especially the relative amounts of the many types of collagens, which represent the most abundant ECM molecules and which centrally modulate cellular functions and physiological processes, changes dramatically during fibrosis progression.
We hypothesize that there are good and bad collagens in fibrosis and that a change of location alone may change the function from good to bad. Whereas basement membrane collagen type IV anchors epithelial and other cells in a polarized manner, the interstitial fibroblast collagens type I and III do not provide directional information. In addition, feedback loops from biologically active degradation products of some collagens are examples of the importance of having the right collagen at the right place and at the right time controlling cell function, proliferation, matrix production and fate. Examples are the interstitial collagen type VI and basement membrane collagen type XVIII. Their carboxyterminal propeptides serve as an adipose tissue hormone, endotrophin, and as a regulator of angiogenesis, endostatin, respectively.
We provide an overview of the 28 known collagen types and propose that the molecular composition of the ECM in fibrosis needs careful attention to assess its impact on organ function and its potential to progress or reverse. Consequently, to adequately assess fibrosis and to design optimal antifibrotic therapies, we need to dissect the molecular entity of fibrosis for the molecular composition and spatial distribution of collagens and the associated ECM.