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Limber Lungs: One Type of Airway Cell Can Regenerate Another Lung Cell Type

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Posted April 14, 2015
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A new collaborative study describes a way that lung tissue can regenerate after injury. The team found that lung tissue has more dexterity in repairing tissue than once thought. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, including co-senior authors Jon Epstein, MD, chair of the department of Cell and Developmental Biology, and Brigid L.M Hogan, Duke Medicine, along with co-first authors Rajan Jain, MD, a cardiologist and instructor in the Department of Medicine and Christina E. Barkauskas, also from Duke, report their findings in Nature Communications.

Adult lung tissue that is regenerating: Type I cells: grn; Type II: red, new Type II derived from Type I: yellow. Nuclei: blue

Adult lung tissue that is regenerating: Type I cells: grn; Type II: red, new Type II derived from Type I: yellow. Nuclei: blue

“It’s as if the lung cells can regenerate from one another as needed to repair missing tissue, suggesting that there is much more flexibility in the system than we have previously appreciated,” says Epstein. “These aren’t classic stem cells that we see regenerating the lung. They are mature lung cells that awaken in response to injury. We want to learn how the lung regenerates so that we can stimulate the process in situations where it is insufficient, such as in patients with COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease].”

The two types of airway cells in the alveoli, the gas-exchanging part of the lung, have very different functions, but can morph into each other under the right circumstances, the investigators found. Long, thin Type 1 cells are where gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) are exchanged – the actual breath. Type 2 cells secrete surfactant, a soapy substance that helps keep airways open. In fact, premature babies need to be treated with surfactant to help them breathe.

The team showed in mouse models that these two types of cells originate from a common precursor stem cell in the embryo. Next, the team used other mouse models in which part of the lung was removed and single cell culture to study the plasticity of cell types during lung regrowth. The team showed that Type 1 cells can give rise to Type 2 cells, and vice-versa.

Findings from animal study have implications for disorders such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

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