An in vitro approach to assess the toxicity of inhaled tobacco smoke components: nicotine, cadmium, formaldehyde and urethane

Dominique Balharry, Keith Sexton, Kelly A BéruBé

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the first lines of defence to inhaled toxins is the barrier formed by the tracheobronchial epithelium, making this the ideal region for studying the toxicity of inhaled substances. This study utilises a highly differentiated, three-dimensional, in vitro model of human upper respiratory tract epithelium (EpiAirway-100) to measure the acute toxicological responses to well-characterised tobacco smoke components. To determine the suitability of this model for screening inhaled toxicants, the EpiAirway tissue model (ETM) was treated apically with tobacco smoke components (nicotine, formaldehyde, cadmium, urethane) which are known to induce a variety of toxic effects (e.g. cytotoxic, thrombogenic, carcinogenic). A range of concentrations were used to model different mechanisms and severity of toxicity which were then compared to known in vivo responses. Similar trends in stress response occurred, with distinct alterations to the tissue in response to all four toxins. At high concentrations, cell viability decreased and tight junctions were degraded, but at sub-toxic concentrations epithelial resistance (indicating tissue integrity) increased 20-60% from control. This peak in resistance coincided with an increase in secreted protein levels, elevated cytokine release and goblet cell hyperplasia and hypertrophy. In conclusion, acute exposure to tobacco smoke components induces measurable toxic responses within human respiratory epithelium. Sub-toxic concentrations appear to illicit a protective response by increasing mucus secretion and mediating immune responses via cytokine release. These responses are comparable to human in vivo responses, indicating potential for the ETM as a tool for screening the toxicity of inhaled compounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-76
Number of pages11
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Feb 2008


  • Bronchi
  • Cadmium
  • Cell Survival
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Electric Impedance
  • Formaldehyde
  • Granulocyte-Macrophage Colony-Stimulating Factor
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure
  • Interleukin-1alpha
  • Interleukin-6
  • Nicotine
  • Smoke
  • Tight Junctions
  • Time Factors
  • Tobacco
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Trachea
  • Urethane


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