Thorax 57:765-770 doi:10.1136/thorax.57.9.765
  • Original articles

β-Actin and GAPDH housekeeping gene expression in asthmatic airways is variable and not suitable for normalising mRNA levels

  1. E M Glare1,
  2. M Divjak1,
  3. M J Bailey2,
  4. E H Walters1,3
  1. 1Department of Respiratory Medicine, Alfred Hospital and Monash University Medical School, Melbourne 3181, Australia
  2. 2Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Alfred Hospital and Monash University Medical School
  3. 3Department of Clinical Sciences, School of Medicine, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia
  1. Correspondence to:
    Professor E H Walters, Department of Clinical Sciences, School of Medicine, GPO Box 252, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia;
  • Accepted 14 January 2002
  • Revised 29 November 2001


Background: The use of reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to measure mRNA levels has led to the common use of β-actin and GAPDH housekeeping genes as denominators for comparison of samples. Expression of these genes is assumed to remain constant, so normalising for variations in processing and signal quantitation. However, it is well documented that β-actin and GAPDH expression is upregulated with proliferation, activation, and differentiation. We hypothesised that airway samples which differ in their cellular profiles and activation status have different levels of expression of GAPDH and β-actin.

Methods: The mRNA for β-actin, GAPDH, and interleukin (IL)-2 was measured in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid cells and endobronchial biopsy tissue by competitive RT-PCR in a cross sectional study of 26 normal controls and 92 asthmatic subjects.

Results: For both BAL fluid cells and biopsy tissue, asthmatics overall had reduced expression of GAPDH and β-actin mRNA. In asthmatic subjects not using inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), GAPDH mRNA levels in both BAL fluid and biopsy tissue, and β-actin mRNA in BAL fluid cells were 10 times lower than samples from both normal controls and from asthmatic subjects using ICS. β-Actin mRNA in biopsy specimens showed the same pattern of expression, but asthmatic subjects not using ICS were not significantly different from those receiving ICS treatment. IL-2 mRNA levels did not differ between the subject or treatment groups but, when expressed as a ratio with β-actin, significant differences were seen.

Conclusions: β-Actin and GAPDH used as denominators of gene expression quantitation in asthma research can cause confounding. Housekeeping genes need careful validation before their use in such quantitative mRNA assays.