05 December 2017
There is now convincing evidence that the airway epithelium drives the pathogenesis of COPD. A major aspect of this is the disease-related reduction in barrier function that is potentiated by dysregulation of tight junction (TJ) protein complexes. However, a significant number of studies using in vitro smoke exposure models have not observed alterations in barrier permeability. We have previously shown that zinc (Zn) is an influential cytoprotective factor for the airway epithelium, and its depletion by cigarette smoke produces disease-related modifications consistent with inflammatory changes in COPD. We hypothesized that Zn deficiency is a significant co-stimulus with cigarette smoke extract (CSE) for potentiating the leaky barrier phenotype exhibited in COPD. We employed an ex vivo model of differentiated human airway epithelium exposed to Zn depletion and CSE to determine the contribution of Zn in maintaining normal epithelial permeability. Western blot analysis demonstrated a significant downregulation of the TJ proteins such as ZO-1 (−1.93-fold, P<0.05) and Claudin-1 (−3.37-fold, P<0.01) with the combination exposure. Assessment of barrier function via paracellular ionic conductance and tracer permeability also showed that Zn depletion was an important factor, which potentiated an increase in epithelial permeability ( P<0.001 for both) compared to Zn depletion or CSE exposures in isolation. Visual inspection of the epithelium using transmission electron microscopy revealed a marked reduction in junction complexes between the adjacent airway epithelial cells treated with a combination of Zn depletion and CSE. These observations identify Zn deficiency as a significant codeterminant with CSE as a factor leading to an increase in airway epithelial permeability. Hence, as Zn dyshomeostasis has been reported in the airway epithelium exposed to chronic cigarette smoke and inflammation, targeting these phenomena may represent a promising strategy to ameliorate the leaky barrier phenotype that is synonymous with COPD.