Anti-inflammatory therapy in asthma is reliant on corticosteroids, particularly in their inhaled form. However, steroids are rather non-specific in their actions and they also raise concerns regarding compliance and side-effect Issues. Furthermore, a small proportion of patients with asthma fail to respond to oral glucocorticoids even at high doses. This Article will review the role that steroids and membrane receptor ligation play in the induction of eosinophil apoptosis together with the mechanisms by which corticosteroids enhance the disposal of apoptotic eosinophils by both professional and non-professional phagocytes. Eosinophils are thought to be the major pro-inflammatory effector cell in asthma and their persistence in the airways is probably enhanced by the presence of several asthma-relevant cytokines that prolong eosinophil survival by inhibition of apoptosis (interleukin (IL)-3, IL-5, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, IL-9, IL-13, IL-15). In contrast, a number of signals have been described that accelerate apoptosis in human eosinophils including corticosteroids or ligation of membrane receptors (CD95, CD45, CD69). Thus, the load of lung eosinophils in asthmatic disease is likely to be related to a balance in the tIssue microenvironment between pro- and anti-apoptotic signals. Furthermore, removal of apoptotic eosinophils by phagocytosis by alveolar macrophages or bronchial epithelial cells in a specific receptor-mediated way is as important as the process of apoptosis induction. Corticosteroids enhance the recognition and engulfment of apoptotic eosinophils by macrophages or bronchial epithelial cells. Caspases are key intracellular molecules in the control of apoptosis and defects in caspase-induced apoptosis in eosinophils from steroid-resistant individuals may contribute to the molecular mechanisms underlying glucocorticoid insensitivity in these cells. These findings point the way to new and more targeted anti-inflammatory therapy for asthma and may provide important clues for the development of alternative therapies for glucocorticoid resistance.
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