The cells that line our respiratory and digestive tracts are primed and ready for action in the event of injury. A report in this week's Nature (Vol. 422, No. 6929, 20 March 2003, pp. 322-326) shows how an inbuilt self-repair mechanism ensures that no time is wasted in patching up damage. Just a single layer of cells, called the epithelium, separates our insides from the outside world. This fragile barrier is easily damaged and vulnerable to infection. Epithelial cells produce two proteins, erbB2 and heregulin, physically separated on opposite sides of the cell, find Michael J. Welsh of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Iowa, and colleagues. When a cell is damaged, the physical barrier breaks down and the proteins can activate each other, stimulating cell division and promoting quick, efficient repair. Disruption to this system may cause airway diseases like cystic fibrosis and asthma.
"This mechanism, which allows epithelial cells to stand poised to promote their own healing, is conceptually so simple that one wonders why no one had described it before," write Keith Mostov and Mirjam Zegers of the University of California at San Francisco in an accompanying News and Views article.
Michael J. Welsh
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