Characterization of an immortalized human small airway basal stem/progenitor cell line with airway region-specific differentiation capacity

Guoqing Wang, Howard H. Lou, Jacqueline Salit, Philip L. Leopold, Sharon Driscoll, Juergen Schymeinsky, Karsten Quast, Sudha Visvanathan, Jay S. Fine, Matthew J. Thomas, Ronald Crystal

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Background: The pathology of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and most lung cancers involves the small airway epithelium (SAE), the single continuous layer of cells lining the airways ≥ 6th generations. The basal cells (BC) are the stem/progenitor cells of the SAE, responsible for the differentiation into intermediate cells and ciliated, club and mucous cells. To facilitate the study of the biology of the human SAE in health and disease, we immortalized and characterized a normal human SAE basal cell line. Methods: Small airway basal cells were purified from brushed SAE of a healthy nonsmoker donor with a characteristic normal SAE transcriptome. The BC were immortalized by retrovirus-mediated telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) transduction and single cell drug selection. The resulting cell line (hSABCi-NS1.1) was characterized by RNAseq, TaqMan PCR, protein immunofluorescence, differentiation capacity on an air-liquid interface (ALI) culture, transepithelial electrical resistance (TEER), airway region-associated features and response to genetic modification with SPDEF. Results: The hSABCi-NS1.1 single-clone-derived cell line continued to proliferate for > 200 doubling levels and > 70 passages, continuing to maintain basal cell features (TP63+, KRT5+). When cultured on ALI, hSABCi-NS1.1 cells consistently formed tight junctions and differentiated into ciliated, club (SCGB1A1+), mucous (MUC5AC+, MUC5B+), neuroendocrine (CHGA+), ionocyte (FOXI1+) and surfactant protein positive cells (SFTPA+, SFTPB+, SFTPD+), observations confirmed by RNAseq and TaqMan PCR. Annotation enrichment analysis showed that "cilium" and "immunity" were enriched in functions of the top-1500 up-regulated genes. RNAseq reads alignment corroborated expression of CD4, CD74 and MHC-II. Compared to the large airway cell line BCi-NS1.1, differentiated of hSABCi-NS1.1 cells on ALI were enriched with small airway epithelial genes, including surfactant protein genes, LTF and small airway development relevant transcription factors NKX2-1, GATA6, SOX9, HOPX, ID2 and ETV5. Lentivirus-mediated expression of SPDEF in hSABCi-NS1.1 cells induced secretory cell metaplasia, accompanied with characteristic COPD-associated SAE secretory cell changes, including up-regulation of MSMB, CEACAM5 and down-regulation of LTF. Conclusions: The immortalized hSABCi-NS1.1 cell line has diverse differentiation capacities and retains SAE features, which will be useful for understanding the biology of SAE, the pathogenesis of SAE-related diseases, and testing new pharmacologic agents.

Original languageEnglish
Article number196
JournalRespiratory Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Aug 2019



  • Basal cells
  • Immortalization
  • Single cell
  • Small airway
  • Telomerase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine

Cite this

Wang, G., Lou, H. H., Salit, J., Leopold, P. L., Driscoll, S., Schymeinsky, J., Quast, K., Visvanathan, S., Fine, J. S., Thomas, M. J., & Crystal, R. (2019). Characterization of an immortalized human small airway basal stem/progenitor cell line with airway region-specific differentiation capacity. Respiratory Research, 20(1), [196].