Unraveling the mystery of the gastroesophageal junction: a pathologist's perspective

Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Aug;100(8):1853-67. doi: 10.1111/j.1572-0241.2005.50096.x.


The gastroesophageal junction (GEJ), which is defined as the point where the distal esophagus joins the proximal stomach (cardia), is a short anatomic area that is commonly exposed to the injurious effects of GERD and/or Helicobacter pylori infection. These disorders often lead to inflammation and intestinal metaplasia (IM) of this anatomic region. The true gastric cardia is an extremely short segment (<0.4 mm) of mucosa that is typically composed of pure mucous glands, or mixed mucous/oxyntic glands that are histologically indistinguishable from metaplastic mucinous columnar epithelium of the distal esophagus. In patients with GERD, whether physiologic or pathologic, the length of cardia-type epithelium increases and extends proximally above the level of the anatomic GEJ into the distal esophagus. Columnar metaplasia of the distal esophagus represents a squamous to columnar metaplastic reaction that develops from an esophageal stem cell and may pass through an intermediate phase characterized by the presence of a type of epithelium that possesses a mixture of squamous and columnar features, termed multilayered epithelium. In contrast, IM of the gastric cardia represents a columnar to columnar cell metaplastic reaction that develops from a gastric stem cell located in the deep foveolar compartment of the gastric mucosa. Intestinal metaplasia, particularly the incomplete type, is widely believed to represent the precursor lesion upon which dysplasia and cancer arises. The frequency of IM is probably greater in metaplastic columnar epithelium in the esophagus secondary to GERD, than in cases of true gastric carditis secondary to H. pylori, and may be a reason why there is a higher risk of carcinoma in the former compared to the latter. A variety of clinical, endoscopic, histologic, and histochemical methods can be used to distinguish GERD-induced columnar metaplasia of the distal esophagus from H. pylori-induced inflammation of true gastric cardia, and these are outlined in this review, but further controlled studies are needed to critically evaluate these techniques. Further prospective trials are needed to adequately evaluate the different etiologic and pathogenetic mechanisms and, most importantly, the risk of malignancy in these two conditions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardia / pathology
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Esophagogastric Junction / pathology*
  • Esophagogastric Junction / physiopathology
  • Gastric Mucosa / pathology
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux / pathology
  • Humans
  • Metaplasia
  • Mucous Membrane / pathology