Local small airway epithelial injury induces global smooth muscle contraction and airway constriction

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2012 Feb;112(4):627-37. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00739.2011. Epub 2011 Nov 23.


Small airway epithelial cells form a continuous sheet lining the conducting airways, which serves many functions including a physical barrier to protect the underlying tissue. In asthma, injury to epithelial cells can occur during bronchoconstriction, which may exacerbate airway hyperreactivity. To investigate the role of epithelial cell rupture in airway constriction, laser ablation was used to precisely rupture individual airway epithelial cells of small airways (<300-μm diameter) in rat lung slices (∼250-μm thick). Laser ablation of single epithelial cells using a femtosecond laser reproducibly induced airway contraction to ∼70% of the original cross-sectional area within several seconds, and the contraction lasted for up to 40 s. The airway constriction could be mimicked by mechanical rupture of a single epithelial cell using a sharp glass micropipette but not with a blunt glass pipette. These results suggest that soluble mediators released from the wounded epithelial cell induce global airway contraction. To confirm this hypothesis, the lysate of primary human small airway epithelial cells stimulated a similar airway contraction. Laser ablation of single epithelial cells triggered a single instantaneous Ca(2+) wave in the epithelium, and multiple Ca(2+) waves in smooth muscle cells, which were delayed by several seconds. Removal of extracellular Ca(2+) or decreasing intracellular Ca(2+) both blocked laser-induced airway contraction. We conclude that local epithelial cell rupture induces rapid and global airway constriction through release of soluble mediators and subsequent Ca(2+)-dependent smooth muscle shortening.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bronchioles / injuries*
  • Bronchioles / physiopathology
  • Bronchoconstriction*
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Calcium Signaling
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Lasers
  • Muscle, Smooth / metabolism
  • Muscle, Smooth / physiopathology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Respiratory Mucosa / injuries*


  • Calcium