European Respiratory Society

Cigarette smoke impairs airway epithelial barrier function and cell–cell contact recovery

I.H. Heijink, S.M. Brandenburg, D.S. Postma, A.J.M. van Oosterhout


Cigarette smoking, the major cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), induces aberrant airway epithelial structure and function. The underlying mechanisms are unresolved so far.

We studied effects of cigarette smoke extract (CSE) on epithelial barrier function and wound regeneration in human bronchial epithelial 16HBE cells and primary bronchial epithelial cells (PBECs) from COPD patients, nonsmokers and healthy smokers.

We demonstrate that CSE rapidly and transiently impairs 16HBE barrier function, largely due to disruption of cell–cell contacts. CSE induced a similar, but stronger and more sustained, defect in PBECs. Application of the specific epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitor AG1478 showed that EGFR activation contributes to the CSE-induced defects in both 16HBE cells and PBECs. Furthermore, our data indicate that the endogenous protease calpain mediates these defects through tight junction protein degradation. CSE also delayed the reconstitution of 16HBE intercellular contacts during wound healing and attenuated PBEC barrier function upon wound regeneration. These findings were comparable between PBECs from smokers, healthy smokers and COPD patients.

In conclusion, we demonstrate for the first time that CSE reduces epithelial integrity, probably by EGFR and calpain-dependent disruption of intercellular contacts. This may increase susceptibility to environmental insults, e.g. inhaled pathogens. Thus, EGFR may be a promising target for therapeutic strategies to improve mucosal barrier function in cigarette smoking-related disease.


  • Received December 15, 2010.
  • Accepted June 27, 2011.
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