Objectives: This study aimed to isolate and characterize stem/progenitor cells, starting from normal airway epithelia, obtained from human adults. Materials and methods: Cultures of multicellular spheroids were obtained from human lung tissue specimens after mechanical and enzymatic digestion. Tissue-specific markers were detected on their cells by immunohistochemical and immunofluorescent techniques. Ultrastructural morphology of the spheroids (termed as bronchospheres) was evaluated by electron microscopy, gene expression analysis was performed by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, and gene down-regulation was analysed by an RNA interference technique. Results: Bronchospheres were found to be composed of cells with high expression of stem cell regulatory genes, which was not or was only weakly detectable in original tissues. Morphological analysis showed that bronchospheres were composed of mixed phenotype cells with type II alveolar and Clara cell features, highlighting their airway resident cell origin. In addition to displaying specific pulmonary and epithelial commitment, bronchospheres showed mesenchymal features. Silencing of the Slug gene, known to play a pivotal role in epithelial-mesenchymal transition processes and which was highly expressed in bronchospheres but not in original tissue, led bronchospheres to gain a differentiated bronchial/alveolar phenotype and to lose the stemness gene expression pattern. Conclusions: Ours is the first study to describe ex vivo expansion of stem/progenitor cells resident in human lung epithelia, and our results suggest that the epithelial-mesenchymal transition process, still active in a subset of airway cells, may regulate transit of stem/progenitor cells towards epithelial differentiation.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cell Biology