Anion secretion by a model epithelium: more lessons from Calu-3

Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2011 Jul;202(3):523-31. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-1716.2011.02253.x. Epub 2011 Mar 22.


Anion transport drives fluid into the airways and is essential for humidifying inspired air and supplying surface liquid for mucociliary transport. Despite the importance of airway secretion in diseases such as cystic fibrosis, the cellular mechanisms remain poorly understood, in part due to the small size and complicated structure of the submucosal glands that produce most of the fluid. The Calu-3 human lung adenocarcinoma cell line has become a popular model for studying airway secretion because it can be cultured as a flat sheet, expresses the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator and several acinar cell markers, forms polarized monolayers with tight junctions, has robust cAMP-stimulated anion transport, and responds to secretagogues that regulate the glands in vivo. However, some properties of Calu-3 cells are less consistent with those of native tissue. In particular, Calu-3 monolayers do not secrete chloride when stimulated by forskolin under short-circuit conditions. Bicarbonate ions are thought to carry the short-circuit current (I(sc)) and the drive secretion of alkaline fluid, in contrast to the neutral pH secretions that are produced by submucosal glands. Calu-3 cells also have abnormal chromosomes and characteristics of both serous and mucus cells. In this article, we discuss Calu-3 as a model in light of our ongoing studies, which suggest that Calu-3 monolayers resemble submucosal glands more closely than was previously thought. For example, we find that net HCO(3)(-) flux fully accounts for I(sc) as previously suggested but Cl(-) is the main anion transported under physiological conditions. A novel, HCO(3)(-) -dependent mechanism of Cl(-) transport is emerging which may explain secretion by Calu-3 and perhaps other epithelial cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anions / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Epithelium / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Ion Transport / physiology*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / cytology
  • Respiratory Mucosa / metabolism


  • Anions