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The goal of our studies was to establish procedures for subculturing normal human tracheobronchial epithelial (NHTBE) cells without compromising their ability to differentiate into mucous and ciliated cells (i.e., differentiation competence) and to study the regulation of airway secretions by epidermal growth factor (EGF) and retinoic acid (RA). Primary NHTBE cells were obtained from a commercial source and subcultured repeatedly in serum-free medium on plastic tissue culture dishes. The subcultured cells were tested after every passage for differentiation competence in air-liquid interface (ALI) cultures. The apical secretions of cultured NHTBE cells were characterized by immunoblotting, Western blotting, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay using a variety of antibodies. They contained mucin-like materials as well as lysozyme, lactoferrin, and secretory leukocyte protease inhibitor (SLPI). We found that an EGF concentration of 25 ng/ml, which is commonly used in airway cell cultures, adversely affected growth, mucin production, and morphology of ALI cultures and that RA was essential for mucociliary differentiation. Without RA, the epithelium became squamous and mucin secretions decreased 300- to 900-fold. In contrast, secretion of lysozyme, lactoferrin, and SLPI was significantly increased in RA-depleted cultures. Cells of passage 2 (P-2) through P-4 remained competent to differentiate into mucous and ciliated cells when grown in ALI cultures. However, mucin secretion and ciliagenesis decreased in P-3 and P-4 cell cultures and P-3 but not P-4 cell cultures exhibited bioelectric properties characteristic of airway epithelium. We concluded that P-2 and P-3 NHTBE cell cultures retain many important features of normal airway epithelium. This enables one to conduct many studies of airway cell biology with a greatly expanded (6,000-fold) cell pool.