The role of the epidermal growth factor receptor in sustaining neutrophil inflammation in severe asthma


D. E. Davies, Division of Infection, Inflammation & Repair Mailpoint 810, Level D Centre Block, Southampton General Hospital, Southampton SO16 6YD, UK. E-mail:


Background The extent of epithelial injury in asthma is reflected by expression of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which is increased in proportion to disease severity and is corticosteroid refractory. Although the EGFR is involved in epithelial growth and differentiation, it is unknown whether it also contributes to the inflammatory response in asthma.

Objectives Because severe asthma is characterized by neutrophilic inflammation, we investigated the relationship between EGFR activation and production of IL-8 and macrophage inhibitory protein-1 alpha (MIP-1α) using in vitro culture models and examined the association between epithelial expression of IL-8 and EGFR in bronchial biopsies from asthmatic subjects.

Methods H292 or primary bronchial epithelial cells were exposed to EGF or H2O2 to achieve ligand-dependent and ligand-independent EGFR activation; IL-8 mRNA was measured by real-time PCR and IL-8 and MIP-1α protein measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Epithelial IL-8 and EGFR expression in bronchial biopsies from asthmatic subjects was examined by immunohistochemistry and quantified by image analysis.

Results Using H292 cells, EGF and H2O2 increased IL-8 gene expression and release and this was completely suppressed by the EGFR-selective tyrosine kinase inhibitor, AG1478, but only partially by dexamethasone. MIP-1α release was not stimulated by EGF, whereas H2O2 caused a 1.8-fold increase and this was insensitive to AG1478. EGF also significantly stimulated IL-8 release from asthmatic or normal primary epithelial cell cultures established from bronchial brushings. In bronchial biopsies, epithelial IL-8, MIP-1α, EGFR and submucosal neutrophils were all significantly increased in severe compared to mild disease and there was a strong correlation between EGFR and IL-8 expression (r = 0.70, P < 0.001).

Conclusions These results suggest that in severe asthma, epithelial damage has the potential to contribute to neutrophilic inflammation through enhanced production of IL-8 via EGFR- dependent mechanisms.