Asthma cells scramble like ‘there’s a fire drill’

Courtesy of Jeffrey Fredberg and Jin-Ah Park
The images show human bronchial epithelial cells obtained from a normal donor (left) and an asthmatic donor. The color-coded bar reflects the speed at which the cells move.

In people with asthma, the cells that line the airways in the lungs are unusually shaped and “scramble around like there’s a fire drill going on.” But according to a study at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an unexpected discovery suggests intriguing new avenues both for basic biological research and for therapeutic interventions to fight asthma.

Until now, scientists thought that epithelial cells — which line not only the lung’s airways but major cavities of the body and most organs — just sat there motionless, like tiles covering a floor or cars jammed in traffic. But the study, which was published online Aug 3 in Nature Materials, showed that, in asthma, the opposite is true.

To analyze cell movement, the researchers took time-lapse images of epithelial cells. They also produced videos that show quite vividly the differences between normal cells and asthmatic cells. The videos show that the normal cells are nearly pentagon-shaped and are jammed — they hardly move at all — while the asthmatic cells become more spindle-shaped and constantly move and swirl without jamming.