Molecular Mechanisms of Airway Epithelial Progenitor Cell Maintenance and Repair.
The lungs are vital organs whose airways are lined with a continuous layer of epithelial cells. Epithelial cells in the distal most part of the lung, the alveolar space, are specialized to facilitate gas exchange. Proximal to the alveoli is the airway epithelium, which provides an essential barrier and is the first line of defense against inhaled toxicants, pollutants, and pathogens. Although the postnatal lung is a quiescent organ, it has an inherent ability to regenerate in response to injury. Proper balance between maintaining quiescence and undergoing repair is crucial, with imbalances in these processes leading to fibrosis or tumor development. Stem and progenitor cells are central to maintaining balance, given that they proliferate and renew both themselves and the various differentiated cells of the lung. However, the precise mechanisms regulating quiescence and repair in the lungs are largely unknown. In this dissertation, ionizing radiation is used as a physiologically relevant injury model to better understand the repair process of the airway epithelium. We use in vitro and in vivo mouse models to study the response of a secretory progenitor, the club cell, to various doses and qualities of ionizing radiation. Exposure to radiation found in space environments and in some types of radiotherapy caused clonal expansion of club cells specifically in the most distal branches of the airway epithelium, indicating that the progenitors residing in the terminal bronchioles are radiosensitive. This clonal expansion is due to an increase in p53-dependent apoptosis, senescence, and mitotic defects. Through the course of this work, we discovered that p53 is not only involved in radiation response, but is also a novel regulator of airway epithelial homeostasis. p53 acts in a gene dose-dependent manner to regulate the composition of airway epithelium by maintaining quiescence and regulating differentiation of club progenitor cells in the steady-state lung. The work presented in this dissertation represents an advance in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying maintenance of airway epithelial progenitor cells as well as their repair following ionizing radiation exposure.
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