Lung injury activates specialized adult epithelial progenitors to regenerate the epithelium. Depending on the extent of injury, both remaining alveolar type II cells (AEC2s) and distal airway stem/progenitors mobilize to cover denuded alveoli and restore normal barriers. The major source of airway stem/progenitors other than basal-like cells remains uncertain. Here, we define a distinct subpopulation (∼5%) of club-like lineage-negative epithelial progenitors (LNEPs) marked by high H2-K1 expression critical for alveolar repair. Quiescent H2-K1high cells account for virtually all in vitro regenerative activity of airway lineages. After bleomycin injury, H2-K1 cells expand and differentiate in vivo to alveolar lineages. However, injured H2-K1 cells eventually develop impaired self-renewal with features of senescence, limiting complete repair. Normal H2-K1high cells transplanted into injured lungs differentiate into alveolar cells and rescue lung function. These findings indicate that small subpopulations of specialized stem/progenitors are required for effective lung regeneration and are a potential therapeutic adjunct after major lung injury.
Keywords: MHC(high) airway progenitors; alveolar injury and regeneration; bleomycin injury; dedifferentiation; lung epithelial stem cells; oxygenation; single cell transcriptomics; transplantation.
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Conflict of interest statement
Declaration of Interests The authors declare no competing interests.
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