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Nihon Kyobu Shikkan Gakkai Zasshi. 1990 Dec;28(12):1547-56.

[Structure and function of airway epithelial cells].

[Article in Japanese]

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Department of Medicine I, Tokyo Women's Medical College.


Airway mucosa consists of several types of cells including ciliated cells, mucus secreting cells, basal cells and Clara cells. In this review, fine structures of these epithelial cells and intercellular junctions are demonstrated by scanning and transmission electron microscopy, and the proposed kinetics of cellular maturation and development are discussed. Airway epithelium not only plays a role as a mechanical barrier at the air-surface interface but also possesses a wide variety of functions. Ciliary beating has been recognized to be one of the important determinants for mucociliary transport by clearing inhaled particles and bacteria from the airway. We found that the motility of cilia can be regulated by intracellular second messengers, such as Ca2+, cAMP, and protein kinase C. When ciliated epithelium is encountered by physicochemical stimuli, these signal transduction systems are activated through phosphatidylinositol turnover and/or Ca2+ channel opening, which subsequently modulate the synthesis of ATP, an energy source of ciliary beating. Airway epithelium contains the enzyme neutral endopeptidase which can degrade several peptides into inactive fragments, thus regulating the actions of tachykinins released from sensory C-fibers via axon reflex. Ion transport across airway mucosa is determined by Cl secretion and Na absorption in airway epithelium. To elucidate the mechanism of airway hypersecretion under several conditions of respiratory diseases, the effects of chemical mediators, neuropeptides, and inflammatory mediators on electrical properties of canine cultured tracheal epithelium were studied. We also expanded this idea to human subjects and found that indomethacin inhalation was valuable in reducing the amounts of sputum production by inhibiting Cl and water secretion into the airway lumen. In addition, airway epithelium can modulate contraction of airway smooth muscle by generating epithelium-derived relaxing factor (EpDRF). We have shown that lipopolysaccharide-induced airway hyperreactivity seems attributable to the loss of airway epithelium with EpDRF.

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