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Early Human Development (2007) 83, 789794

a v a i l a b l e a t w w w. s c i e n c e d i r e c t . c o m

w w w. e l s e v i e r. c o m / l o c a t e / e a r l h u m d e v

Lung growth and development

Suchita Joshi, Sailesh Kotecha

Department of Child Health, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF14 4XN, UK

Fetal lung liquid;
Growth factors; Human lung growth starts as a primitive lung bud in early embryonic life and undergoes several
Transcriptional factors; morphological stages which continue into postnatal life. Each stage of lung growth is a result of
Prematurity; complex and tightly regulated events governed by physical, environmental, hormonal and
Glucocorticoids; genetic factors. Fetal lung liquid and fetal breathing movements are by far the most important
Congenital diaphragmatic determinants of lung growth. Although timing of the stages of lung growth in animals do not
hernia; mimic that of human, numerous animal studies, mainly on sheep and rat, have given us a better
Chronic lung disease of understanding of the regulators of lung growth. Insight into the genetic basis of lung growth has
prematurity helped us understand and improve management of complex life threatening congenital
abnormalities such as congenital diaphragmatic hernia and pulmonary hypoplasia. Although
advances in perinatal medicine have improved survival of preterm infants, premature birth is
perhaps still the most important factor for adverse lung growth.
2007 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Normal lung development: structural and 1.1. Embryonic stage (07 weeks in utero)
vascular growth and possible developmental
anomalies At around 34 weeks of embryonic life, the lung develops as
an outgrowth of the ventral wall of the primitive foregut, the
laryngotracheal groove. The epithelial cells from the foregut
In the human embryo, development of lung starts as early as
endoderm invade the surrounding mesenchyme to form the
3 weeks of embryonic life and continues into postnatal life up
trachea. During the embryonic stage, the trachea branches
to early adulthood. The structural and vascular development
into the right and left main bronchi and subsequently into
of the lung is closely related and progresses simultaneously in
lobar and segmental bronchi. Lobar and segmental bronchi
the human fetus. The events of antenatal growth and
appear at about the 5th week [2] and by the end of this stage,
development of human lung have traditionally been divided
18 major lobules are recognisable [3]. Pulmonary arteries
into 5 stages (Table 1). Burri has recently reviewed the role
and veins develop as a single avascular bud from the 6th
of microvascular maturation during alveolarization [1]. In
aortic arch and continue to grow by vasculogenesis around
each of these stages, there are possibilities of congenital
the airway buds from 416 weeks [4].
malformations associated with abnormal lung development
This earliest stage of lung development may have a
(Table 2).
principle role in determining the postnatal mortality and
morbidity of the fetus. Structural abnormalities such as
tracheal or pulmonary agenesis or stenosis maybe incompa-
Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 29 20 74 4187; fax: +44 29 20 74 tible with life whereas other forms of anomalies such as
4283. tracheomalacia or bronchomalacia, ectopic lobes and con-
E-mail address: (S. Kotecha). genital lobar cysts may lead to significant respiratory

0378-3782/$ - see front matter 2007 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.
790 S. Joshi, S. Kotecha

Table 1 Stages of lung growth

Stage Time Events
Embryonic 07 weeks Formation of trachea, right and left main bronchi, segmental bronchi, and vasculogenesis
around airway buds
Canalicular 717 weeks Differentiation of epithelial cells, formation of conduction airway and terminal bronchioles,
formation of pulmonary arteries and veins
Pseudoglandular 1727 weeks Formation of respiratory bronchioles, alveolar ducts and primitive alveoli, differentiation of
type I and type II pneumocytes and formation of alveolar capillary barrier
Saccular 2836 weeks Increment in gas exchange areas, further differentiation of type I and type II cells
Alveolar 36 weeks Septation and multiplication of alveoli
2 years
Until 18 Enlargement of terminal bronchioles and alveoli
22 years
Microvascular Birth to 2 Fusion of double alveolar capillary network into a single layer
maturation 3 years

morbidity. Arterio-venous malformations may also form submucosal gland, bronchial smooth muscle and epithelial
during vasculogenesis. cell types. This is the period of fastest division of intra-
segmental airways. By 14 weeks, 70% of the total airway
1.2. Pseudoglandular stage (717 weeks in utero) generated at birth is formed [2] and by the end of
17 weeks, the formation of conducting airways and term-
Pseudoglandular stage is marked by further branching of inal bronchioles is complete [5]. Pattern of airway branching
airway and vascular network and progressive differentiation and division is determined by epithelialmesenchymal
of epithelial cells to form adult structures of cartilage, interactions. Bronchial mesenchyme induces branching in
the trachea, whereas tracheal mesenchyme inhibits bran-
ching of the bronchial tree [6]. As the pseudoglandular
stage progresses, the early pseudo-stratified epithelium is
Table 2 Congenital malformations associated with abnor- progressively replaced by columnar cells proximally and
mal lung growth by cuboidal cells distally. The cuboidal cells, rich in gly-
Embryonic cogen, represent the immature type II cells. Thus, during
Pulmonary agenesis pseudoglandular stage, all pre-acinar structures, includ-
Tracheal or laryngeal agenesis or stenosis ing, pre-acinar airway, pulmonary arteries and veins are
Tracheo- or broncho-malacia The failure of normal division of airway structures at this
Bronchial malformation stage may lead to pulmonary hypoplasia or sequestration,
Ectopic lobes cystic adenomatoid malformation and crucially, failure of
A-V malformations the pleuro-peritoneal membrane to close at this stage may
Congenital lobar cysts result in congenital diaphragmatic hernia.

Pseudoglandular 1.3. Canalicular stage (1727 weeks in utero)

Cystic adenomatoid malformation
Pulmonary sequestration The acinar structures comprising the respiratory bronchioles,
Lung hypoplasia alveolar ducts and primitive alveoli are formed during the
Lung cysts canalicular stage. Canalicular stage is marked by two
Congenital pulmonary lymphangiectasia important steps in the development of the lung: differentia-
Congenital diaphragmatic hernia tion of type I and type II pneumocytes and formation of the
alveolar capillary barrier [3,7]. Surfactant protein is detect-
Canalicular able by 24 weeks of intrauterine life. Thus, a possible
Lung hypoplasia platform for gas exchange is established. With advances in
Respiratory distress syndrome perinatal medicine and ever increasing survival of extremely
Acinar dysplasia preterm infants, this is an important landmark in lung growth
and development.
Saccular/alveolar Surfactant deficiency leading to respiratory distress
Pulmonary hypoplasia syndrome is inevitable with premature delivery at this
Respiratory distress syndrome/ chronic lung disease of stage.
Acinar dysplasia 1.4. Saccular stage (2836 weeks in utero)
Alveolar capillary dysplasia
By this stage, division of the airways is almost complete and
Reproduced with permission from Kotecha [5].
further growth and development of lung structures comprise
Lung growth and development 791

of enlargement of the peripheral airways with dilatation of 2. Factors that regulate and modify lung
acinar tubules forming saccules and thinning of the airway growth: prenatal to postnatal stages
walls. This ensures increased surface area for gas exchange.
There is also further differentiation of type II cells to type I
Multiple factors that govern lung growth is a topic of growing
cells and increment in surfactant containing laminar bodies
interest and numerous studies have been performed on
lining type II pneumocytes.
animal models, mainly on sheep and rat, to explore the role
of physical, hormonal and genetic factors in prenatal lung
1.5. Alveolar stage (36 weeks in utero2 years) growth (Table 3).

Recognition of secondary septa in the terminal airway and

formation of definitive cup shaped alveoli marks the alveolar 2.1. Fetal lung volume, fetal lung fluid, amniotic
stage. In a newborn rat lung, which is at the saccular stage of fluid and fetal breathing movements
lung development, the saccules are lined by a central sheet
of connective tissue supporting a layer of capillary network Fetal lung volume maintained by the combined mechanisms
on either side [1]. Gradually, low ridge like projections, also of fetal lung fluid secretion and fetal breathing movements is
with double capillary network appear in the airspaces, which perhaps the most important determinant of fetal lung
eventually divide the airspaces into alveoli. This process of growth. Experiments on ovine fetus have proved that
formation of double capillary walled secondary septa and distension of fetal lung by fetal lung fluid is related to
multiplication of alveoli continue rapidly up to the age of at hyperplasia of the lung and drainage of the fluid results in
least 2 years in humans. pulmonary hypoplasia [11]. Fetal lung fluid is mainly formed
by the epithelial cells of the distal airways. In ovine fetus,
lung fluid is secreted at the rate of 2 ml/kg/h at mid
1.6. Postnatal lung growth gestation and gradually increases to 5 ml/kg/h at near term
[5]. The rate and volume of fluid production however
It has been estimated that the number of alveoli at birth
decrease as the fetus approaches term in readiness for
ranges from 2050 million [3]. Alveolar multiplication con-
postnatal adaptation. Arginine vasopressin, catacholamines,
tinues in the postnatal period at least up to the age of 2
cortisol, prostaglandin E2 and atrial natriureteric hormone
3 years and alveolar size and surface increases until after
are all associated with decrease in production of fetal lung
adolescence [5,7]. Ochs et al. [8] have reported that the
fluid at or around birth. Amniotic fluid volume also
final number of alveoli in a fully developed adult lung reach
contributes to the fetal lung distension and hence lung
300800 million with approximately 170 alveoli per cubic
growth. In the fetal rat, oligohydramnious has been shown to
millimetre. Post-mortem examination of lungs of children
retard lung growth and development of type I cells. However,
who died as a result of trauma or after short illnesses re-
there was no evidence of its effect on type II cells and
vealed that boys had larger lungs than girls of the same
surfactant production [12]. Another important factor con-
stature which resulted in greater alveolar number and
tributing to the maintenance of adequate lung volume is
greater alveolar surface area than girls for a given age and
fetal breathing movements. In the human fetus, breathing
stature [9]. In recent years, we have gained further insight
movements are noted as early as 11 weeks of gestation and
into the postnatal growth of distal airways. When air space
by 3040 weeks, it occurs 30% of the time. Various animal
calibre of small airways and alveoli at their maximal natural
experiments on abolition of fetal breathing movements
distension was measured in 53 children of age 622 years and
including transection of spinal cord at the level of phrenic
59 adults of age 2380 years, it was noted that both the small
nerve [13] and ablation of phrenic nerve [14] have demon-
bronchioles and alveoli expanded significantly in size with
strated pulmonary hypoplasia and reduced lung DNA in
increasing age and height up to the age of 22 years but the
affected animal fetuses. Increase in carbon dioxide and
increase in size thereafter was not statistically significant
glucose levels, acidosis and drugs such as caffeine and
theophylline are associated with increased fetal breathing
movements. Maternal smoking, alcohol and drug use are
1.7. Stage of microvascular maturation (several known to reduce fetal breathing movements. Similarly,
months to 23 years) hypoxia, hypoglycaemia, intrauterine infection and prosta-
glandin E2 may all have adverse effect on these breathing
Burris group has previously described that, besides the movements [5].
multiplication and enlargement of airspaces, some impor- In the last decade, there have been huge advances on
tant microvascular changes occur in postnatal lung develop- research on fetal tracheal occlusion to maintain fetal lung
ment, which he termed as the stage of microvascular volume and stretching lung tissue to improve lung growth,
maturation [1]. Essentially, during this period, the double especially in fetuses with congenital diaphragmatic hernia. A
capillary network gradually merges as a single capillary layer. recent review on this topic summarises the pros and cons of
This is an extremely important event in the postnatal lung this fetal interventional therapy [15]. Numerous studies, on
growth as angiogenesis and alveolarization go hand in hand sheep, rabbits, rats and mice, have repeatedly demon-
and once the capillary network fuses into a single layer; new strated that surgical tracheal occlusion applied during
alveolar septa cannot be formed. This has now been canalicular and saccular stages of lung development not
postulated as the major cause of premature arrest of lung only improves dry lung weight but also increases airway
growth following postnatal dexamethasone treatment in branching, alveolization, alveolar surface area, type II
premature infants with chronic lung disease. pneumocytes and pulmonary vascular growth [15].
792 S. Joshi, S. Kotecha

2.2. Hormonal, transcriptional and growth factors important in type II cell differentiation and secretion of
Surfactant Protein C later in lung development [16,17]. On
The complexity of the role of various hormones as well as the other hand, transforming growth factor (TGF ) has an
growth and transcriptional factors in the growing lung is opposite but important role of inhibiting cell proliferation
gaining more and more fascination among researchers in and branching morphology, promoting formation of lung
recent years. The list of some of the important hormones, matrix and aiding pulmonary repair after injury. Its defi-
growth factors and transcriptional factors and their possible ciency can lead to undue lung inflammation and its over-
role in lung growth and development is summarised in expression may lead to lung fibrosis [16,17]. Vascular
Table 3. Thyroid hormone has been well recognised to play endothelial growth factor (VEGF) plays a central role in
an important role in epithelial and mesenchymal cell vasculogenesis and angiogenesis and is therefore critical for
differentiation and airway branching in early developmental normal lung development. Beside its primary role on vascular
period as well as differentiation of type II cells and development, VEGF also has positive effect on differentia-
surfactant secretion in late development. Pituitary and tion of type II cells and stimulation of surfactant production.
adrenal hormones have also been implicated in lung Furthermore, VEGF also has an important role on endothelial
maturation. Among the numerous growth hormones and function and inhibition of VEGF in premature lung has been
transcriptional factors, fibroblast growth factors (FGF) and known to reduce NO bioavailability that may lead to the
Sonic hedgehog (Shh) seem to have influential roles in development of chromic lung disease of prematurity (CLD)
determining the pattern of airway branching. FGFs are also [18].

2.3. Environmental factors

Table 3 Possible role of some growth and transcriptional The influence of environmental factors such as exposure of
factors in lung growth and development the developing lung to tobacco smoke both in intrauterine
Transcriptional and growth Possible role in lung growth and postnatal life has long been associated with adverse
factors and development respiratory outcomes such as reduced lung volume and
decreased number of alveoli, enlarged alveolar size and
FOXA1, FOXA2, GATA4 and n Formation and maintenance
abnormal septation leading to reduction of gas exchange
GATA6 of foregut
area. However, the precise mechanism and timing of events
Tbx4 n Localisation of bud site
of adverse effects are not clear. Some interesting effects of
Fibroblast growth factors n Localisation of organs
nicotine on type II cell morphology and metabolism has
(FGFs) derived from foregut
n Induction of budding and
emerged from a recent study on rats. When rat fetuses were
exposed to nicotine in early embryonic life from day 6 to day
Branching (FGF 10)
n Alveolization
20, it was noted that nicotine could permanently alter lung
n Type II cell differentiation
growth of the developing lung by stimulating alveolar type II
cells proliferation, differentiation and metabolism and
and induction of Surfactant
hence stimulating surfactant synthesis [19]. In recent
Protein C ( FGF2 and FGF7)
years, there has also been growing interest on the possible
Sonic hedgehog (Shh) n
Suppresses Fgf10 expression
influences of other environmental pollutants such as ozone
and prevents branching events
and particulate matters that can result in impaired lung
at sites where branching is
growth [20].
stereotypically determined
not to take place
2.4. Specific diseases
Bone Morphogenic Protein 4 n Formation and control of
(BMP4) dorsal and ventral branches
2.4.1. Chronic lung disease of prematurity (CLD)
HOX genes n Defines overall three
With advances in perinatal medicine and the resulting
dimensional orientation
improved survival of extremely preterm infants, CLD has
Epidermal growth factor n Airway proliferation ,
inevitably become the most important specific condition
differentiation and branching
that adversely affects postnatal lung development. Unlike
Platelet-derived growth n Alveolization
term infants, preterm infants are born with lungs still in
factor (PDGF)
prenatal stages of development i. e. cannalicular or
Retinoic acid (RA) n
Induction of Fgf10 and
saccular stage. Surfactant deficiency leading to mechanical
endodermal differentiation
ventilation, oxygen therapy and pulmonary inflammation,
Transforming growth factor n Lung repair after pulmonary
infection and patent ductus arteriosus are some of the
(TGF) insult and matrix production
n Inhibits cell proliferation
determining factors leading to a cascade of events that result
in CLD. Hyperoxia and barotrauma both cause lung injury and
Insulin-like growth factor n Airway proliferation
inflammation that subsequently results in decreased alveo-
lization. Hyperoxia severely disrupts septation, causes
Vascular endothelial growth n Vasculogenesis, angiogenesis
increased terminal sac diameter and decreased gas exchan-
factor (VEGF) and lymphangeogenesis
ging surface area [3]. Intrauterine infection including with
Granulocyte macrophage- n Macrophase differentiation
Ureaplasma Spps. may also result in disordered lung growth
colony stimulating factor
in the fetus and newborn infant [5]. An alternative theory for
the dysregulated lung growth seen in infants who develop
Lung growth and development 793

CLD is that their vascular development may be abnormal the development of CDH during early lung development [25].
which may lead to abnormalities of lung growth (reviewed in As summarized in Table 3, transcriptional and growth factors,
Ref. [21]). such as Shh and FGF10, signal and regulate lung morphogen-
Postnatal glucocorticoids are widely used in the context esis and defects at any stage may lead to lung hypoplasia
of severe respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) and CLD, which is an essential component of CDH. In the last decade,
mostly to wean chronically ventilator-dependent preterm radiological advancements in 3D ultrasonography and mag-
infants. Although postnatal glucocorticoids have proved to netic resonance imaging (MRI) has made it possible to assess
be invaluable as a rescue therapy for chronically ventilated fetal lung volume quantitatively in fetuses suspected to have
preterm infants, there have been concerns over their short- pulmonary hypoplasia and CDH [26]. As already described
term and long-term adverse effects. From animal studies, it above, studies involving intrauterine tracheal obstruction to
is clear, that glucocorticoids directly affect alveolar and encourage growth of hypoplastic lung in CDH have been
microvascular growth of the lungs. Burri et al. have studied explored but provide many challenges before such therapy
the effects of high-dose, short-term as well as low-dose, becomes routine in clinical practice.
long-term glucocorticoid administration on alveolarization
and pulmonary microvascular development on rats [22]. 3. Conclusion
Low-dose long-term therapy was shown to produce perma-
nent impairment of lung alveolarization, possibly as a result The close relationship of different stages of morphological
of precocious microvascular maturation. However, when and vascular growth of human lung with numerous physical,
postnatal rats were administered short-term, high-dose biological and environmental factors is complex but
glucocorticoids for 4 consecutive days, although there was fascinating. The growing knowledge of molecular biology
initial evidence of precocious microvascular maturation by and human genetics related to lung growth has not only
capillary fusion and arrest of parenchymal septation, the enabled us to have better understanding of this complex and
effects were temporary. This initial phase of accelerated continuous process but also contributed towards antenatal
lung growth was arrested briefly and by day 10, normal diagnosis and interventional therapy for life threatening
alveolar growth resumed [22]. Hence, it is clear that the congenital conditions such as congenital diaphragmatic
precise dose, timing and duration of glucocorticoid therapy hernia and pulmonary hypoplasia. Although there are some
can have major implications on lung growth and develop- important differences in the timing and stages of lung
ment. Besides the effects of glucocorticoids on lung growth in human and animals, numerous animal experi-
morphology, their effect on long-term pulmonary function ments, mostly on sheep and rats, have greatly enhanced our
has also been investigated. The results of these studies are knowledge of the important roles of various transcriptional
difficult to compare or to interpret because of the variations and growth factors in lung growth and development.
in the use of surfactant, severity of the chronic lung disease, Understanding of the very basic stages of lung growth and
dose, duration and timing of the use of dexamethasone and recognition of development and maturation of alveoli,
because of different methods of measuring pulmonary formation of functional blood alveolar barrier and produc-
function between different studies. When 145 children, tion of surfactant has made survival of extremely premature
who had participated in a double-blind, randomized con- infants possible. The effects of glucocorticoids on postnatal
trolled trial (19841989) of dexamethasone (0.5 mg/kg/day lung maturation need to be investigated further to establish
for 1 week) or placebo for treatment of neonatal chronic lung the appropriate dose and duration of the glucocorticoid
disease were followed up at 1317 years of age, there was no therapy in severe lung disease of prematurity and to
significant difference in lung function between the two establish possible long-term benefits and adverse effects.
groups, as assessed by spirometry [23]. This study concluded Advances in imaging techniques such as 3D ultrasonography
that there is no evidence that use of dexamethasone in and advanced MRI technologies will no doubt play a major
neonatal period has long-term consequences for the lung but role in early and accurate diagnosis of both structural and
beneficial effects were not demonstrated either. However, functional lung pathologies in fetuses with congenital
another recent follow-up study by Nixon et al. on 68, 8 structural defects and children with chronic lung disease
11 year old children, who had participated in a randomized of prematurity. However, much work still needs to be done
controlled trial (19921995) of a 42-day tapering course of to improve postnatal lung development in premature infants
postnatal dexamethasone (0.5 mg/kg/day) or placebo in the and to prevent chronic lung disease of prematurity.
neonatal period to reduce the duration of ventilator
dependency, reported that the postnatal dexamethasone
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