Because it is difficult to obtain, little is known of bronchial mucus from the normal human airway; it has been mainly studied as sputum expectorated in chronic bronchitis with particular attention to epithelial glycoprotein. We have now applied density gradient methods to study this and other macromolecules and lipids in normal airway mucus. After lavage at bronchoscopy, mucus was aspirated from six normal volunteers, that include one light and two heavy smokers. This normal mucus has been compared with that obtained from four patients with tracheostomy because of respiratory muscle paralysis due to neurological disease. The normal aspirates contained small threads of mucus, the tracheostomy aspirates viscous blobs of jelly, a difference in physical appearance reflected in macromolecular yields, 0.3-1 mg/ml and 6-24 mg/ml respectively. On analytical ultracentrifugation normal mucus showed no discernible material in the buoyant density region typical of epithelial glycoprotein (1.5 g/ml): Virtually all the material migrated to the miniscus and was predominantly lipids and proteins. A trace amount of material recovered from a higher density region (greater than or equal to 1.6 g/ml) was found to contain both glycoprotein and proteoglycan. Aspirates from the heavy smokers contained appreciable amounts of material with typical buoyant density (approximately 1.5 g/ml) but still with features of proteoglycan. In contrast in tracheostomy aspirates epithelial glycoprotein of typical buoyant density and chemical composition accounted for up to 25% of nondialyzable material. We conclude that under normal conditions typical epithelial glycoprotein is virtually absent from airway mucus and that the glycoconjugate present has features of glycoprotein and proteoglycan.
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