Background: Non-neuronal cells, including those derived from lung, are reported to express nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR). We examined nAChR subunit expression in short-term cultures of human airway cells derived from a series of never smokers, ex-smokers, and active smokers.
Methods and results: At the mRNA level, human bronchial epithelial (HBE) cells and airway fibroblasts expressed a range of nAChR subunits. In multiple cultures of both cell types, mRNA was detected for subunits that constitute functional muscle-type and neuronal-type pentomeric receptors. Two immortalized cell lines derived from HBE cells also expressed muscle-type and neuronal-type nAChR subunits. Airway fibroblasts expressed mRNA for three muscle-type subunits (alpha1, delta, and epsilon) significantly more often than HBE cells. Immunoblotting of HBE cell and airway fibroblast extracts confirmed that mRNA for many nAChR subunits is translated into detectable levels of protein, and evidence of glycosylation of nAChRs was observed. Some minor differences in nAChR expression were found based on smoking status in fibroblasts or HBE cells. Nicotine triggered calcium influx in the immortalized HBE cell line BEAS2B, which was blocked by alpha-bungarotoxin and to a lesser extent by hexamethonium. Activation of PKC and MAPK p38, but not MAPK p42/44, was observed in BEAS2B cells exposed to nicotine. In contrast, nicotine could activate p42/44 in airway fibroblasts within five minutes of exposure.
Conclusions: These results suggest that muscle-type and neuronal-type nAChRs are functional in airway fibroblasts and HBE cells, that prior tobacco exposure does not appear to be an important variable in nAChR expression, and that distinct signaling pathways are observed in response to nicotine.