An in vitro bioassay for evaluating the effect of inhaled bronchodilators on airway smooth muscle

Joanna Muddle, Varsha Kanabar, Marc Brown, Clive Page*, Ben Forbes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Purpose: The development of inhaled drug products is expensive and involves time-consuming pharmacokinetic (PK) and pharmacodynamic (PD) studies. There are few in vitro cell-based assays to evaluate the disposition and action of orally inhaled drugs to guide early product development and minimise risk. The aim of the present study was to develop a co-culture bioassay, combining an airway epithelial cell line (Calu-3) with cultured human primary airway smooth muscle cells (ASM), integrated with apparatus to deliver pharmaceutical aerosols. Methods: An assay for measuring cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) in ASM derived from healthy donors was adapted to provide a biochemical surrogate for ASM relaxation. Concentration-response curves for cAMP were established for three drugs that elicit ASM relaxation: isoprenaline (ISO), forskolin (FOR) and salbutamol sulphate. The ASM bioassay was incorporated into a co-culture model in which air-interfaced Calu-3 cell layers, representing the permeability barrier of the airway epithelium, were grown on transwell inserts above ASM cells cultured in the well of the base-plate. The sensitivity of this bioassay to salbutamol delivered using different formulations and aerosol products was evaluated. Results: ASM responded with concentration dependent increases in cAMP when exposed to 10-9 to 10-5 M ISO, FOR or salbutamol sulphate solutions for 15 or 30 min. Salbutamol formulated with different counter ions elicited differential cAMP responses in ASM (xinafoate > base = sulphate) suggesting that this bioassay could discriminate between formulations with different potency. A similar rank order of potency was observed for the different salbutamol salts when applied as aerosols to the co-culture model. Discussion: We have developed a novel bioassay using human ASM in co-culture with human respiratory epithelial cells to better mimic various elements that contribute to the rate and extent of local drug availability in the lungs following topical administration. The bioassay offers an opportunity to investigate the factors determining the activity of inhaled bronchodilator drugs in a more biologically relevant system than that has previously been described and with further development and validation, this novel bioassay could provide a method to guide the more efficient development of inhaled bronchodilators, reducing the current reliance on in vivo studies.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101943
JournalPulmonary Pharmacology and Therapeutics
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


  • Airway smooth muscle
  • Calu-3 cells
  • Co-culture model
  • Counter ions
  • Cyclic adenosine monophosphate
  • Pharmacodynamic studies
  • Salbutamol
  • Twin stage impinger


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