Rationale: Severe asthma (SA) remains poorly understood. Mast cells (MC) are implicated in asthma pathogenesis, but it remains unknown how their phenotype, location, and activation relate to asthma severity.
Objectives: To compare MC-related markers measured in bronchoscopically obtained samples with clinically relevant parameters between normal subjects and subjects with asthma to clarify their pathobiologic importance.
Methods: Endobronchial biopsies, epithelial brushings, and bronchoalveolar lavage were obtained from subjects with asthma and normal subjects from the Severe Asthma Research Program (N = 199). Tryptase, chymase, and carboxypeptidase A (CPA)3 were used to identify total MC (MC(Tot)) and the MC(TC) subset (MCs positive for both tryptase and chymase) using immunostaining and quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction. Lavage was analyzed for tryptase and prostaglandin D2 (PGD2) by ELISA.
Measurements and main results: Submucosal MC(Tot) (tryptase-positive by immunostaining) numbers were highest in "mild asthma/no inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) therapy" subjects and decreased with greater asthma severity (P = 0.002). In contrast, MC(TC) (chymase-positive by immunostaining) were the predominant (MC(TC)/MC(Tot) > 50%) MC phenotype in SA (overall P = 0.005). Epithelial MC(Tot) were also highest in mild asthma/no ICS, but were not lower in SA. Instead, they persisted and were predominantly MC(TC). Epithelial CPA3 and tryptase mRNA supported the immunostaining data (overall P = 0.008 and P = 0.02, respectively). Lavage PGD2 was higher in SA than in other steroid-treated groups (overall P = 0.02), whereas tryptase did not differentiate the groups. In statistical models, PGD2 and MC(TC)/MC(Tot) predicted SA.
Conclusions: Severe asthma is associated with a predominance of MC(TC) in the airway submucosa and epithelium. Activation of those MC(TC) may contribute to the increases in PGD2 levels. The data suggest an altered and active MC population contributes to SA pathology.