Airway Epithelial Barrier Dysfunction in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Role of Cigarette Smoke Exposure

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The epithelial lining of the airway forms the first barrier against environmental insults, such as inhaled cigarette smoke, which is the primary risk factor for the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The barrier is formed by airway epithelial junctions, which are interconnected structures that restrict permeability to inhaled pathogens and environmental stressors. Destruction of the epithelial barrier not only exposes subepithelial layers to hazardous agents in the inspired air, but also alters the normal function of epithelial cells, which may eventually contribute to the development of COPD. Of note, disruption of epithelial junctions may lead to modulation of signaling pathways involved in differentiation, repair, and proinflammatory responses. Epithelial barrier dysfunction may be particularly relevant in COPD, where repeated injury by cigarette smoke exposure, pathogens, inflammatory mediators, and impaired epithelial regeneration may compromise the barrier function. In the current review, we discuss recent advances in understanding the mechanisms of barrier dysfunction in COPD, as well as the molecular mechanisms that underlie the impaired repair response of the injured epithelium in COPD and its inability to redifferentiate into a functionally intact epithelium.

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