Chronic lung diseases such as asthma and cystic fibrosis are characterized by an increase in the number of cells known as goblet cells and an increase in the production of lung mucous. Although the molecular details of how these changes are regulated are not well defined, a new study by researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital indicates that a protein known as SPDEF has an important role in controlling these processes.

In the study, which appeared online on March 8 in advance of publication in the April print issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Jeffrey Whitsett and colleagues show that in vivo expression of SPDEF in mouse lung epithelial cells is increased by IL-13 (a soluble factor associated with asthma) and exposure to dust mite allergens. This increased SPDEF expression was associated with an increase in the number of goblet cells. In vitro, SPDEF was shown to interact with a protein known as TFF-1 and to increase the expression of genes encoding proteins that caused the epithelial cells to become goblet cells and to produce mucous proteins. This study therefore indicates that SPDEF has a crucial role in endowing the lung with the characteristics of chronic lung disease.