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J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1999 Dec;104(6):1131-8.

Defensins: key players or bystanders in infection, injury, and repair in the lung?

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Department of Pulmonology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands.


Antimicrobial peptides have been identified as key elements in the innate host defense against infection. Recent studies have indicated that the activity of antimicrobial peptides may be decreased in cystic fibrosis, suggesting a major role for these peptides in host defense against infection. One of the most intensively studied classes of antimicrobial peptides are defensins. Defensins comprise a family of cationic peptides that in human subjects can be divided into the alpha- and beta-defensin subfamilies. The alpha-defensins are produced by neutrophils and intestinal Paneth's cells, whereas beta-defensins are mainly produced by epithelial cells. Although studies on beta-defensins have so far focused on their antimicrobial activity, studies on alpha-defensins have suggested a role of these peptides in inflammation, wound repair, and specific immune responses. alpha-Defensins, which accumulate in airway secretions of patients with various chronic inflammatory lung disorders, were shown to be cytotoxic toward airway epithelial cells and to induce chemokine secretion in several cell types. Furthermore, the capacity of alpha-defensins to promote bacterial adherence to epithelial cells in vitro further supports a role for these peptides in the pathogenesis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis. Increased numbers of neutrophils are also present in the airways of patients with asthma, suggesting that neutrophils are involved in the pathogenesis of this disease. Because defensins are able to induce histamine release by mast cells and increase the airway hyperresponsiveness to histamine, it is tempting to speculate that defensins may also contribute to the inflammatory processes in asthma. Besides these proinflammatory effects, alpha-defensins may also display anti-inflammatory activities, including regulation of complement activation and proteinase inhibitor secretion. Finally, defensins may be involved in wound repair because defensins increase epithelial cell proliferation. Thus recent defensin research has revealed potential links between the innate and acquired immune system.

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