Background: Mechanisms of airway repair are poorly understood. It has been proposed that, following injury, progenitor populations such as club cells (Clara) become undifferentiated, proliferate and re-differentiate to re-epithelialise the airway. The exact phenotype of such cells during repair is unknown however. We hypothesised that airway epithelial cells (AECs) undergo some degree of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) in order to migrate over a denuded airway and effect re-epithelialisation. Furthermore, based on our previous findings that BMP signalling is an early event in AECs following injury in vivo and that BMP4 down-regulates E-cadherin expression and enhances migration in AECs in vitro, we hypothesised that BMPs could play a role in inducing such a phenotypic switch.Methods: Normal AECs were isolated from mouse lungs and analysed in a model of a disrupted epithelium. EMT marker expression and BMP signalling were examined by immunofluorescence, Western blotting and RT-PCR.Results: Following generation of a wound area, AECs at the wound edge migrated and acquired a mesenchymal-like morphology. E-cadherin expression was reduced in migrating cells while vimentin and α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) expression was increased. Re-expression of membrane E-cadherin was subsequently observed in some cells in the wound area following re-establishment of the monolayer. A transient increase in the incidence of nuclear phosphorylated Smad1/5/8 was observed in migrating cells compared with confluent cells, indicating active BMP signalling during migration. BMP antagonists noggin and gremlin inhibited cell migration, confirming the involvement of BMP signalling in migration and indicating autocrine signalling, possibly involving BMP7 or BMP4 which were expressed in AECs. Exogenous BMP2, BMP4 and BMP7 induced a mesenchymal-like morphology in AECs, enhanced the rate of cell migration and increased α-SMA protein expression in AECs.Conclusions: Following disruption of an intact epithelium, migrating AECs at the wound edge acquire an EMT-like phenotype involving altered expression of E-cadherin, vimentin and α-SMA. BMP signalling is involved in AEC migration and is likely to mediate the switch towards an EMT-like phenotype by altering protein expression to facilitate cell migration and wound closure. We propose therefore that acquisition of an EMT-like phenotype by AECs is a normal aspect of wound repair. Furthermore, we suggest that diseases involving fibrosis may arise because the EMT phase of repair is prolonged by chronic injury/inflammation, rather than being caused by it, as is the current paradigm. © 2013 McCormack et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
McCormack, N., Molloy, E. L., & O’Dea, S. (2013). Bone morphogenetic proteins enhance an epithelial-mesenchymal transition in normal airway epithelial cells during restitution of a disrupted epithelium. Respiratory Research, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1465-9921-14-36