The development of pathologic mucus, which is not readily cleared from the airways, is an important contributor to the morbidity and mortality associated with asthma. It is not clear how the major airway mucins MUC5AC and MUC5B are organized within the mucus gel or how this gel contributes to airway obstruction in asthma. Here, we demonstrated that mucus plugs from individuals with fatal asthma are heterogeneous gels with distinct MUC5AC- and MUC5B-containing domains. Stimulation of cultured human bronchial epithelial cells with IL-13, a key mediator in asthma, induced the formation of heterogeneous mucus gels and dramatically impaired mucociliary transport. Impaired transport was not associated with defects in ciliary function but instead was related to tethering of MUC5AC-containing mucus gel domains to mucus-producing cells in the epithelium. Replacement of tethered mucus with untethered mucus restored mucociliary transport. Together, our results indicate that tethering of MUC5AC-containing domains to the epithelium causes mucostasis and likely represents a major cause of mucus plugging in asthma.
Luke R. Bonser, Lorna Zlock, Walter Finkbeiner, David J. Erle