The sentinel role of the airway epithelium in asthma pathogenesis

Immunol Rev. 2011 Jul;242(1):205-19. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-065X.2011.01030.x.


The adoption of the concept that asthma is primarily a disease most frequently associated with elaboration of T-helper 2 (Th2)-type inflammation has led to the widely held concept that its origins, exacerbation, and persistence are allergen driven. Taking aside the asthma that is expressed in non-allergic individuals leaves the great proportion of asthma that is associated with allergy (or atopy) and that often has its onset in early childhood. Evidence is presented that asthma is primarily an epithelial disorder and that its origin as well as its clinical manifestations have more to do with altered epithelial physical and functional barrier properties than being purely linked to allergic pathways. In genetically susceptible individuals, impaired epithelial barrier function renders the airways vulnerable to early life virus infection, and this in turn provides the stimulus to prime immature dendritic cells toward directing a Th2 response and local allergen sensitization. Continued epithelial susceptibility to environmental insults such as viral, allergen, and pollutant exposure and impaired repair responses leads to asthma persistence and provides the mediator and growth factor microenvironment for persistence of inflammation and airway wall remodeling. Increased deposition of matrix in the epithelial lamina reticularis provides evidence for ongoing epithelial barrier dysfunction, while physical distortion of the epithelium consequent upon repeated bronchoconstriction provides additional stimuli for remodeling. This latter response initially serves a protective function but, if exaggerated, may lead to fixed airflow obstruction associated with more severe and chronic disease. Dual pathways in the origins, persistence, and progression of asthma help explain why anti-inflammatory treatments fail to influence the natural history of asthma in childhood and only partially does so in chronic severe disease. Positioning the airway epithelium as fundamental to the origins and persistence of asthma provides a rationale for pursuit of therapeutics that increase the resistance of the airways to environmental insults rather than concentrating all effort on suppressing inflammation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptive Immunity
  • Adult
  • Airway Remodeling / immunology*
  • Allergens / immunology
  • Animals
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / therapeutic use
  • Asthma / drug therapy
  • Asthma / immunology*
  • Asthma / physiopathology
  • Child
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Epithelial Cells* / drug effects
  • Epithelial Cells* / immunology
  • Epithelial Cells* / metabolism
  • Epithelium* / drug effects
  • Epithelium* / immunology
  • Epithelium* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / drug therapy
  • Hypersensitivity / immunology*
  • Hypersensitivity / physiopathology
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Infant
  • Inflammation / immunology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mucus / immunology
  • Picornaviridae Infections / immunology
  • Picornaviridae Infections / virology
  • Respiratory System / drug effects
  • Respiratory System / immunology*
  • Respiratory System / physiopathology
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / immunology
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / virology
  • Rhinovirus / immunology
  • Rhinovirus / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • Th2 Cells / immunology
  • Th2 Cells / metabolism


  • Allergens
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Cytokines