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Open Access Research article

Characterisation of urokinase plasminogen activator receptor variants in human airway and peripheral cells

Ceri E Stewart* and Ian Sayers

Author Affiliations

Division of Therapeutics and Molecular Medicine, Nottingham Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit, University of Nottingham, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, NG7 2UH, UK

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BMC Molecular Biology 2009, 10:75  doi:10.1186/1471-2199-10-75

Published: 28 July 2009



Expression of the urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (UPAR) has been shown to have clinical relevance in various cancers. We have recently identified UPAR as an asthma susceptibility gene and there is evidence to suggest that uPAR may be upregulated in lung diseases such as COPD and asthma. uPAR is a key receptor involved in the formation of the serine protease plasmin by interacting with uPA and has been implicated in many physiological processes including proliferation and migration. The current aim was to determine key regulatory regions and splice variants of UPAR and quantify its expression in primary human tissues and cells (including lung, bronchial epithelium (HBEC), airway smooth muscle (HASM) and peripheral cells).


Using Rapid Amplification of cDNA Ends (RACE) a conserved transcription start site (-42 to -77 relative to ATG) was identified and multiple transcription factor binding sites predicted. Seven major splice variants were identified (>5% total expression), including multiple exon deletions and an alternative exon 7b (encoding a truncated, soluble, 229aa protein). Variants were differentially expressed, with a high proportion of E7b usage in lung tissue and structural cells (55–87% of transcripts), whereas classical exon 7 (encoding the GPI-linked protein) was preferentially expressed in peripheral cells (~80% of transcripts), often with exon 6 or 5+6 deletions. Real-time PCR confirmed expression of uPAR mRNA in lung, as well as airway and peripheral cell types with ~50–100 fold greater expression in peripheral cells versus airway cells and confirmed RACE data. Protein analysis confirmed expression of multiple different forms of uPAR in the same cells as well as expression of soluble uPAR in cell supernatants. The pattern of expression did not directly reflect that seen at the mRNA level, indicating that post-translational mechanisms of regulation may also play an important role.


We have identified multiple uPAR isoforms in the lung and immune cells and shown that expression is cell specific. These data provide a novel mechanism for uPAR regulation, as different exon splicing may determine uPAR function e.g. alternative E7b results in a soluble isoform due to the loss of the GPI anchor and exon deletions may affect uPA (ligand) and/or integrin binding and therefore influence downstream pathways. Expression of different isoforms within the lung should be taken into consideration in studies of uPAR in respiratory disease.