Acrolein effects in pulmonary cells: relevance to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012 Jul;1259:39-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06531.x.


Acrolein (2-propenal) is a highly reactive α,β-unsaturated aldehyde and a respiratory irritant that is ubiquitously present in the environment but that can also be generated endogenously at sites of inflammation. Acrolein is abundant in tobacco smoke, which is the major environmental risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and elevated levels of acrolein are found in the lung fluids of COPD patients. Its high electrophilicity makes acrolein notorious for its facile reaction with biological nucleophiles, leading to the modification of proteins and DNA and depletion of antioxidant defenses. As a consequence, acrolein results in oxidative stress as well as altered intracellular signaling and gene transcription/translation. In pulmonary cells, acrolein, at subtoxic concentrations, can activate intracellular stress kinases, alter the production of inflammatory mediators and proteases, modify innate immune response, induce mucus hypersecretion, and damage airway epithelium. A better comprehension of the mechanisms underlying acrolein effects in the airways may suggest novel treatment strategies in COPD.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acrolein / pharmacology*
  • Acrolein / toxicity
  • Air Pollutants / pharmacology
  • Air Pollutants / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / chemically induced
  • Inflammation / complications
  • Lung / cytology
  • Lung / drug effects*
  • Models, Biological
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / etiology*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / immunology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / therapy
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects


  • Air Pollutants
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Acrolein