Open Access Research article

mAChRs activation induces epithelial-mesenchymal transition on lung epithelial cells

Kai Yang, Yun Song, Ya-Bing Tang, Zu-Peng Xu, Wei Zhou, Li-Na Hou, Liang Zhu, Zhi-Hua Yu, Hong-Zhuan Chen* and Yong-Yao Cui*

Author Affiliations

Department of Pharmacology, Shanghai JiaoTong University School of Medicine, 280 South Chongqing Road, Shanghai 200025, China

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BMC Pulmonary Medicine 2014, 14:53  doi:10.1186/1471-2466-14-53

Published: 31 March 2014



Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) has been proposed as a mechanism in the progression of airway diseases and cancer. Here, we explored the role of acetylcholine (ACh) and the pathway involved in the process of EMT, as well as the effects of mAChRs antagonist.


Human lung epithelial cells were stimulated with carbachol, an analogue of ACh, and epithelial and mesenchymal marker proteins were evaluated using western blot and immunofluorescence analyses.


Decreased E-cadherin expression and increased vimentin and α-SMA expression induced by TGF-β1 in alveolar epithelial cell (A549) were significantly abrogated by the non-selective mAChR antagonist atropine and enhanced by the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor physostigmine. An EMT event also occurred in response to physostigmine alone. Furthermore, ChAT express and ACh release by A549 cells were enhanced by TGF-β1. Interestingly, ACh analogue carbachol also induced EMT in A549 cells as well as in bronchial epithelial cells (16HBE) in a time- and concentration-dependent manner, the induction of carbachol was abrogated by selective antagonist of M1 (pirenzepine) and M3 (4-DAMP) mAChRs, but not by M2 (methoctramine) antagonist. Moreover, carbachol induced TGF-β1 production from A549 cells concomitantly with the EMT process. Carbachol-induced EMT occurred through phosphorylation of Smad2/3 and ERK, which was inhibited by pirenzepine and 4-DAMP.


Our findings for the first time indicated that mAChR activation, perhaps via M1 and M3 mAChR, induced lung epithelial cells to undergo EMT and provided insights into novel therapeutic strategies for airway diseases in which lung remodeling occurs.

Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT); Lung epithelial cells; Non-neuronal cholinergic system; Signaling pathway