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Mediators of Inflammation
Volume 11 (2002), Issue 3, Pages 141-148

Effects of the cationic protein poly-L-arginine on airway epithelial cells in vitro

Department of Medical Cell Biology, University of Uppsala, Box 571, Uppsala SE 75123, Sweden

Copyright © 2002 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Background: Allergic asthma is associated with an increased number of eosinophils in the airway wall. Eosinophils secrete cationic proteins, particularly major basic protein (MBP).

Aim: To investigate the effect of synthetic cationic polypeptides such as poly-L-arginine, which can mimic the effect of MBP, on airway epithelial cells.

Methods: Cultured airway epithelial cells were exposed to poly-L-arginine, and effects were determined by light and electron microscopy.

Results: Poly-L-arginine induced apoptosis and necrosis. Transmission electron microscopy showed mitochondrial damage and changes in the nucleus. The tight junctions were damaged, as evidenced by penetration of lanthanum. Scanning electron microscopy showed a damaged cell membrane with many pores. Microanalysis showed a significant decrease in the cellular content of magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and chlorine, and an increase in calcium. Plakoglobin immunoreactivity in the cell membrane was decreased, indicating a decrease in the number of desmosomes.

Conclusions: The results point to poly-L-arginine induced membrane damage, resulting in increased permeability, loss of cell-cell contacts and generalized cell damage.