An unexpected new discovery—that, 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”—suggests intriguing new avenues both for basic biological research and for therapeutic interventions to fight the disease. The findings could also have important ramifications for research in other areas—notably, cancer—where the same kinds of cells play a major role.
Until now, scientists thought that epithelial cells—which line the lung’s airways as well as major cavities of the body and most organs—just sat there motionless like tiles covering the floor, or like cars jammed in traffic, said Jeffrey Fredberg, professor of bioengineering and physiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of the senior authors of the study, which was published online August 3, 2015 in Nature Materials. But the study showed that, in asthma, the opposite is true.
The researchers decided to look at the detailed shape and movement of cells from the asthmatic airway because, according to Fredberg, a growing body of research is showing that physical forces change how cells form, grow, and behave. Given this knowledge—and the fact that no one knows what causes asthma, which afflicts more than 300 million people worldwide—it made sense to look at the shape and movement of epithelial cells, which many scientists think play a key role in the disease.