The role of the airway epithelium and its interaction with environmental factors in asthma pathogenesis

Proc Am Thorac Soc. 2009 Dec;6(8):655-9. doi: 10.1513/pats.200907-072DP.


Asthma is an inflammatory disorder of the airways dominated by a Th2-type pattern. Because of this, most research has focused on investigating the role of allergic pathways with the hope of discovering novel therapeutic targets. Unfortunately, this strategy (which has been extended to animal models) has failed to identify any therapeutic modalities other than anti-IgE and leukotriene modifiers directed to targets known about for many years. It seems that the problem lies in placing allergy at the center of disease pathogenesis, when in practice other environmental factors may be equally if not more important in the induction and then progression of asthma. An alternative view is that asthma is primarily a defect of epithelial barrier function that, as in atopic dermatitis, allows greater access of environmental allergens, microorganisms, and toxicants to the airway tissue. Evidence is provided to show that both the physical and functional barrier of the airway epithelium is defective in asthma with disrupted tight junctions, reduced antioxidant activity, and impaired innate immunity. This explains the remarkable susceptibility of asthmatic airways to respiratory viruses and the impact of air pollutants on asthma exacerbations. It also provides a mechanism for programming of dendritic cells to drive a Th2 response in the origins of asthma. Viewing asthma primarily as an epithelial disease with adoption of a chronic wound scenario also provides a route to airway wall remodeling and the varying asthma phenotypes over the life course.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Asthma / etiology*
  • Asthma / immunology
  • Epithelium / immunology
  • Humans
  • Respiratory System / immunology*
  • Rhinovirus / immunology


  • Air Pollutants