Mucous cell metaplasia (MCM), defined by the appearance of mucous cells in airways where mucous cells were not present, is a consistent pathologic characteristic in the peripheral airways of bronchial asthma. Under mild inflammatory conditions MCM occurs as a result of pre-existing airway epithelial cells (AECs) starting to express mucin genes and differentiating into mucous cells. Under extensive inflammatory responses, AECs proliferate, and the development of MCM involves the differentiation of pre-existing and proliferating cells into mucous cells. Epithelial cell numbers per mm basal lamina are increased by approximately 30%. IL-13 is the central cytokine that is responsible for MCM in asthma through GABA-R- and STAT6- mediated mechanisms involving the calcium-activated chloride channel CLCA. IL-13 is also responsible for the proliferation of AECs by causing cells to produce TGFα that acts on the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor. Normally, resolution of MCM involves two distinct mechanisms. 1) Some of the metaplastic mucous cells stop the synthesis of mucus and dedifferentiate into Clara or serous cells to reconstitute the epithelium. 2) When proliferation of epithelial cells had occurred, approximately 30% of metaplastic cells are eliminated during the resolution process. Thus, a safe approach to reducing IL-13-induced MCM would involve blocking mucous synthesis and storage, blocking secretion of stored mucus, and eliminating hyperplastic mucous cells. Understanding the molecular mechanisms of each of these processes is necessary for developing effective therapies for reducing mucous hypersecretion in asthma and leading to a repaired epithelium.
Keywords: Mucous cell metaplasia, lung pathogenesis, hyperplasia of airway epithelium, programmed cell death, inflammation, Th2 cytokines, allergy and asthma, proliferation and cell cycle
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