A porous defense: the leaky epithelial barrier in intestinal disease

Lab Invest. 2004 Mar;84(3):282-91. doi: 10.1038/labinvest.3700050.


A critical function of the intestinal mucosa is to form a barrier that separates luminal contents from the interstitium. This intestinal barrier is compromised in a number of intestinal diseases, most notably inflammatory bowel disease. In vitro studies have demonstrated that cytokines elaborated by immune cells can cause the mucosal barrier to become leaky; these cytokines are known to be increased in intestinal mucosa involved in inflammatory bowel disease. Detailed information describing the mechanisms by which altered cytokine signaling occurs is not available, but recent data implicate the cytoskeleton within epithelial cells as a critical regulator of the mucosal barrier under physiological and pathophysiological conditions. Using available data, we describe a model of intestinal disease where an initial insult to the epithelial barrier may trigger a self-amplifying cycle of immune activation, cytokine release, and further barrier dysfunction. This model is supported by the observation that pharmacological abrogation of cytokine signaling corrects both barrier defects and clinical disease in animal models and human patients, although such therapy clearly has multiple mechanisms. Other therapeutic targets that represent strategies to prevent or reverse disease processes are also considered. The overarching hypothesis is that modulation of the mucosal epithelial barrier plays a critical role in the initiation and propogation of inflammatory intestinal diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytokines / physiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Epithelium / physiopathology
  • Escherichia coli Infections / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / therapy
  • Intestinal Mucosa / physiopathology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Permeability
  • Tight Junctions / physiology


  • Cytokines