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Ther Adv Respir Dis. 2011 Aug;5(4):255-73. doi: 10.1177/1753465810396539. Epub 2011 Mar 3.

The airway epithelium: more than just a structural barrier.

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  • 1The UBC James Hogg Research Centre, Providence Heart and Lung Centre and Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia, UBC, Vancouver, BC, Canada.


The mammalian airway is lined by a variety of specialized epithelial cells that not only serve as a physical barrier but also respond to environment-induced damage through the release of biologically active factors and constant cellular renewal. The lung epithelium responds to environmental insults such as pathogens, cigarette smoke and pollution by secreting inflammatory mediators and antimicrobial peptides, and by recruiting immune cells to the site of infection or damage. When the epithelium is severely damaged, basal cells and Clara cells that have stem-cell-like properties are capable of self-renewal and proliferation in the affected area, to repair the damage. In order to effectively fight off infections, the epithelium requires the assistance of neutrophils recruited from the peripheral circulation through transendothelial followed by transepithelial migration events. Activated neutrophils migrate across the epithelium through a series of ligand-receptor interactions to the site of injury, where they secrete proteolytic enzymes and oxidative radicals for pathogen destruction. However, chronic activation and recruitment of neutrophils in airway diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma has been associated with tissue damage and disease severity. In this paper, we review the current understanding of the airway epithelial response to injury and its interaction with inflammatory cells, in particular the neutrophil.

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