Airway epithelial cell differentiation relies on deficient Hedgehog signalling in COPD

EBioMedicine. 2020 Jan;51:102572. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2019.11.033. Epub 2019 Dec 23.


Background: Hedgehog (HH) pathway is constantly under scrutiny in the context of organ development. Lung morphogenesis requires HH signalling which participates thereafter to the pulmonary homeostasis by regulating epithelial cell quiescence and repair. Since epithelial remodelling is a hallmark of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), we investigated whether the main molecular actors of HH pathway participate to airway epithelial cell differentiation and we analysed their alterations in COPD patients.

Methods: Sonic HH (Shh) secretion was assessed by ELISA in airway epithelial cell (AEC) air-liquid interface culture supernatants. HH pathway activation was evaluated by RT-qPCR, western blot and immunostaining. Inhibition of HH signalling was achieved upon Shh chelation during epithelial cell differentiation. HH pathway core components localization was investigated in lung tissues from non-COPD and COPD patients.

Findings: We demonstrate that progenitors of AEC produced Shh responsible for the activation of HH signalling during the process of differentiation. Preventing the ligand-induced HH activation led to the establishment of a remodelled epithelium with increased number of basal cells and reduced ciliogenesis. Gli2 activating transcription factor was demonstrated as a key-element in the regulation of AEC differentiation. More importantly, Gli2 and Smo were lost in AEC from COPD patients.

Interpretation: Our data suggest that HH pathway is crucial for airway epithelial cell differentiation and highlight its role in COPD-associated epithelial remodelling.

Keywords: Airway epithelial cells; Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; Cilia; Differentiation; Hedgehog.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Biomarkers
  • Cell Differentiation* / genetics
  • Cilia / genetics
  • Cilia / metabolism
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Female
  • Hedgehog Proteins / genetics
  • Hedgehog Proteins / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / diagnosis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / etiology*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / metabolism*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / metabolism*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / pathology
  • Signal Transduction*


  • Biomarkers
  • Hedgehog Proteins