Rationale: Despite long-term therapy with corticosteroids, patients with severe asthma develop irreversible airway obstruction.
Objectives: To evaluate if there are structural and functional differences in the airway epithelium in severe asthma associated with airway remodeling.
Methods: In bronchial biopsies from 21 normal subjects, 11 subjects with chronic bronchitis, 9 subjects with mild asthma, and 31 subjects with severe asthma, we evaluated epithelial cell morphology: epithelial thickness, lamina reticularis (LR) thickness, and epithelial desquamation. Levels of retinoblastoma protein (Rb), Ki67, and Bcl-2 were measured, reflecting cellular proliferation and death. Terminal deoxynucleotidyl-mediated dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) was used to study cellular apoptosis.
Measurements and main results: Airway epithelial and LR thickness was greater in subjects with severe asthma compared with those with mild asthma, normal subjects, and diseased control subjects (p=0.009 and 0.033, respectively). There was no significant difference in epithelial desquamation between groups. Active, hypophosphorylated Rb expression was decreased (p=0.002) and Ki67 was increased (p<0.01) in the epithelium of subjects with severe asthma as compared with normal subjects, indicating increased cellular proliferation. Bcl-2 expression was decreased (p<0.001), indicating decreased cell death suppression. There was a greater level of apoptotic activity in the airway biopsy in subjects with severe asthma as compared with the normal subjects using the TUNEL assay (p=0.002), suggesting increased cell death.
Conclusions: In subjects with severe asthma, as compared with subjects with mild asthma, normal subjects, and diseased control subjects, we found novel evidence of increased cellular proliferation in the airway contributing to a thickened epithelium and LR. These changes may contribute to the progressive decline in lung function and airway remodeling in patients with severe asthma.