Role of KRAS in regulating normal human airway basal cell differentiation

Fumihiro Ogawa, Matthew S. Walters, Afrah Shafquat, Sarah L. O'Beirne, Robert J. Kaner, Jason G. Mezey, Haijun Zhang, Philip L. Leopold, Ronald Crystal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Background: KRAS is a GTPase that activates pathways involved in cell growth, differentiation and survival. In normal cells, KRAS-activity is tightly controlled, but with specific mutations, the KRAS protein is persistently activated, giving cells a growth advantage resulting in cancer. While a great deal of attention has been focused on the role of mutated KRAS as a common driver mutation for lung adenocarcinoma, little is known about the role of KRAS in regulating normal human airway differentiation. Methods: To assess the role of KRAS signaling in regulating differentiation of the human airway epithelium, primary human airway basal stem/progenitor cells (BC) from nonsmokers were cultured on air-liquid interface (ALI) cultures to mimic the airway epithelium in vitro. Modulation of KRAS signaling was achieved using siRNA-mediated knockdown of KRAS or lentivirus-mediated over-expression of wild-type KRAS or the constitutively active G12 V mutant. The impact on differentiation was quantified using TaqMan quantitative PCR, immunofluorescent and immunohistochemical staining analysis for cell type specific markers. Finally, the impact of cigarette smoke exposure on KRAS and RAS protein family activity in the airway epithelium was assessed in vitro and in vivo. Results: siRNA-mediated knockdown of KRAS decreased differentiation of BC into secretory and ciliated cells with a corresponding shift toward squamous cell differentiation. Conversely, activation of KRAS signaling via lentivirus mediated over-expression of the constitutively active G12 V KRAS mutant had the opposite effect, resulting in increased secretory and ciliated cell differentiation and decreased squamous cell differentiation. Exposure of BC to cigarette smoke extract increased KRAS and RAS protein family activation in vitro. Consistent with these observations, airway epithelium brushed from healthy smokers had elevated RAS activation compared to nonsmokers. Conclusions: Together, these data suggest that KRAS-dependent signaling plays an important role in regulating the balance of secretory, ciliated and squamous cell differentiation of the human airway epithelium and that cigarette smoking-induced airway epithelial remodeling is mediated in part by abnormal activation of KRAS-dependent signaling mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Article number181
JournalRespiratory Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Aug 2019



  • Airway
  • Basal cell
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Differentiation
  • KRAS
  • Stem/progenitor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine

Cite this

Ogawa, F., Walters, M. S., Shafquat, A., O'Beirne, S. L., Kaner, R. J., Mezey, J. G., Zhang, H., Leopold, P. L., & Crystal, R. (2019). Role of KRAS in regulating normal human airway basal cell differentiation. Respiratory Research, 20(1), [181].