Airway remodelling is an important component of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL) from neutrophils may drive COPD epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT). NGAL expression was quantified in the lungs of COPD patients and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) of ozone-treated mice. Reticular basement membrane (RBM) thickness and E-cadherin and α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) expression were determined in mice airways. Effects of cigarette smoke extract (CSE) and inflammatory factors on NGAL expression in human neutrophils as well as the effects of NGAL on airway structural cells was assessed. NGAL was mainly distributed in neutrophils and enhanced in lung tissues of both COPD patients and BALF of ozone-treated mice. We showed decreased E-cadherin and increased α-SMA expression in bronchial epithelium and increased RBM thickness in ozone-treated animals. In vitro, CSE, IL-1β and IL-17 enhanced NGAL mRNA expression in human neutrophils. NGAL, in turn, down-regulated the expression of E-cadherin and up-regulated α-SMA expression in 16HBE cells via the WNT/glycogensynthase kinase-3β (GSK-3β) pathway. Furthermore, NGAL promoted the proliferation and migration of human bronchial smooth muscle cells (HASMCs). The present study suggests that elevated NGAL promotes COPD airway remodelling possibly through altered EMT. NGAL may be a potential target for reversing airway obstruction and remodelling in COPD.

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