BACKGROUND: Bronchial asthma is characterised by airway structural changes, including mucosal inflammatory infiltration and subepithelial collagen deposition, that may represent the morphological basis for the chronicity of the disease. The relationship between airway wall thickness and growth factors in asthma has not been elucidated. METHODS: Bronchial biopsy specimens were obtained from 21 asthmatic patients and eight healthy subjects and the basement membrane thickness was measured by light microscopy and electron microscopy. At the same time the numbers of eosinophils and fibroblasts were assessed and the expression of transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-beta 1), platelet derived growth factor (PDGF), and insulin like growth factor (IGF) I in the bronchial mucosa was examined by immunostaining. The relationship between the degree of thickening of the subepithelial layer and both the clinical data and pulmonary function were also investigated. RESULTS: The basement membrane of the asthmatic patients was thicker than that of the healthy controls (median 8.09 versus 4.02 microns). Electron microscopic examination of the basement membrane revealed thickening of the subepithelial lamina reticularis; this thickening significantly correlated with the number of fibroblasts in the submucosa in the asthmatic subjects (rs = 0.88) but not in the controls (rs = 0.70). There was a significantly higher number of eosinophils in the airways of the asthmatic subjects than in the healthy subjects (EG1 + cells: 52.0 versus 2.0/mm2, EG2 + cells: 56.0 versus 1.5/mm2). The expression of each growth factor in the bronchial mucosa was similar in asthmatic and healthy subjects (TGF-beta 1: 18.0% versus 16.0%, PDGF: 37.0% versus 32.5%, IGF-I: 15.0% versus 8.0%). A weak but statistically significant correlation was found between the number of fibroblasts and the expression of TGF-beta 1 in asthmatic subjects (rs = 0.50). There was a significant correlation between the thickness of the subepithelial layer in asthmatic subjects and the attack score (rs = 0.58) and a significant inverse correlation between the subepithelial collagen thickness in asthmatic subjects and airway hypersensitivity (rs = -0.65). CONCLUSIONS: These findings indicate that the thickening of the subepithelial layer in bronchial asthma is due to an increase in fibroblasts, and that the thickness of the subepithelial collagen appears to be linked to an increase in bronchial responsiveness and exacerbation of clinical manifestations.
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