Airways epithelial cells may be involved in the pathogenesis of asthma, but their role remains to be determined. Epithelial cells can release large amounts of 15-hydroxy-eicosatetranoic acid (15-HETE) and smaller amounts of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) as well as fibronectin, a mediator involved in epithelial repair after injury. Epithelial cells obtained after bronchial brushing of 16 asthmatic (age 38 +/- 5 yr) and 11 normal subjects (age 36 +/- 5 yr) were studied. The percentage of epithelial cells was assessed by immunocytochemistry using an anti-cytokeratin antibody. The viability of the cells was assessed by trypan blue exclusion. The release of 15-HETE PGE2 and fibronectin was studied in resting cells and after A23187 calcium ionophore stimulation. Epithelial cells always comprised more than 86% of cells recovered, and the viability of epithelial cells was significantly (p < 0.001, Mann-Whitney U test) greater in normal subjects (54 +/- 5%) compared with asthmatic subjects (13 +/- 1%). The release of 15-HETE and fibronectin by resting epithelial cells was significantly greater in asthmatics (p < 0.05, Mann-Whitney U test) than in normal subjects. A23187 significantly (p < 0.05, Wilcoxon W test) increased the release of 15-HETE and fibronectin. There was no significant difference in the release of PGE2 by resting cells from either asthmatics or normal subjects, but challenge with A23187 induced a significant (p < 0.03, Wilcoxon W test) increase in PGE2 from cells of asthmatics but not from cells of normal subjects. This study shows that epithelial cells are activated and less viable in asthma and suggests a role for these cells in asthma.