Background & aims: Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a multifactorial disease thought to be caused by alterations in epithelial function, innate and adaptive immunity, and luminal microbiota. The specific role of epithelial barrier function remains undefined, although increased activity of intestinal epithelial myosin light chain kinase (MLCK), which is the primary mechanism of tumor necrosis factor-induced barrier dysfunction, occurs in human IBD. Our aim was to determine whether, in an intact epithelium, primary dysregulation of the intestinal epithelial barrier by pathophysiologically relevant mechanisms can contribute to development of colitis.
Methods: We developed transgenic (Tg) mice that express constitutively active MLCK (CA-MLCK) specifically within intestinal epithelia. Their physiology, immune status, and susceptibility to disease were assessed and compared with non-Tg littermate controls.
Results: CA-MLCK Tg mice demonstrated significant barrier loss but grew and gained weight normally and did not develop spontaneous disease. CA-MLCK Tg mice did, however, develop mucosal immune activation demonstrated by increased numbers of lamina propria CD4(+)lymphocytes, redistribution of CD11c+cells, increased production of interferon-gamma and tumor necrosis factor, as well as increased expression of epithelial major histocompatibility complex class I. When challenged with CD4+CD45+Rb(hi) lymphocytes, Tg mice developed an accelerated and more severe form of colitis and had shorter survival times than non-Tg littermates.
Conclusions: Primary pathophysiologically relevant intestinal epithelial barrier dysfunction is insufficient to cause experimental intestinal disease but can broadly activate mucosal immune responses and accelerate the onset and severity of immune-mediated colitis.