Identification of glycosaminoglycans in human airway secretions

Am J Respir Cell Mol Biol. 2006 Feb;34(2):135-41. doi: 10.1165/rcmb.2005-0256OC. Epub 2005 Sep 29.


Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), known to be present in airway mucus, are macromolecules with a variety of structural and biological functions. In the present work, we used fluorophore-assisted carbohydrate electrophoresis (FACE) to identify and relatively quantify GAGs in human tracheal aspirates (HTA) obtained from healthy volunteers. Primary cultures of normal human bronchial epithelial (NHBE) and submucosal gland (SMG) cells were used to assess their differential contribution to GAGs in mucus. Distribution was further assessed by immunofluorescence in human trachea tissue sections and in cell cultures. HTA samples contained keratan sulfate (KS), chondroitin/dermatan sulfate (CS/DS), and hyaluronan (HA), whereas heparan sulfate (HS) was not detected. SMG cultures secreted CS/DS and HA, CS/DS being the most abundant GAGs in these cultures. NHBE cells synthesized KS, HA, and CS/DS. Confocal microscopy showed that KS was exclusively found at the apical border of NHBE cells and on the apical surface of ciliated epithelial cells in tracheal tissues. CS/DS and HA were present in both NHBE and SMG cells. HS was only found in the extracellular matrix in trachea tissue sections. In summary, HTA samples contain KS, CS/DS, and HA, mirroring a mixture of secretions originated in surface epithelial cells and SMGs. We conclude that surface epithelium is responsible for most HA and all KS present in secretions, whereas glands secrete most of CS/DS. These data suggest that, in diseases where the contribution to secretions of glands versus epithelial cells is altered, the relative concentration of individual GAGs, and therefore their biological activities, will also be affected.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Bronchi / cytology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Electrophoresis / methods
  • Epithelial Cells / chemistry
  • Exocrine Glands / cytology
  • Glycosaminoglycans / analysis*
  • Glycosaminoglycans / immunology
  • Humans
  • Trachea / metabolism*


  • Glycosaminoglycans