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Human Airways' 'Brush' Mechanism Gives Clues to Lung Diseases
Date:8/23/2012

THURSDAY, Aug. 23 (HealthDay News) -- A new study that helps explain how human airways rid the lungs of mucus could give insights into asthma, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), researchers say.

Human airways rely on mucus to expel foreign matter -- including toxic and infectious particles -- from the body, the study authors said in a news release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The air we breathe isn't exactly clean, and we take in many dangerous elements with every breath," study co-author Michael Rubinstein noted in the news release. "We need a mechanism to remove all the junk we breathe in, and the way it's done is with a very sticky gel called mucus that catches these particles and removes them with the help of tiny [hair-like] cilia," he explained.

"The cilia are constantly beating, even while we sleep," Rubinstein said. "In a coordinated fashion, they push mucus containing foreign objects out of the lungs, and we either swallow it or spit it out. These cilia even beat for a few hours after we die. If they stopped, we'd be flooded with mucus that provides a fertile breeding ground for bacteria."

It's long been believed that mucus clearance occurs through a "gel-on-liquid" method, in which a watery layer acts as a lubricant and separates mucus from cells that line the airways. However, this does not explain how mucus remains in its own distinct layer.

In this study, published in the Aug. 24 issue of the journal Science, Rubinstein and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggest a "gel-on-brush" form of mucus clearance, in which mucus moves atop a brush-like layer rather than a watery layer.

"This layer -- this brush -- seems to be very important for the healthy functioning of human airways," Rubinstein said. "It protects cells from sticky mucus, and it creates a second barrier of defense in case viruses
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