Relationship between protein digestibility and allergenicity: comparisons of pepsin and cathepsin

Toxicology. 2013 Jul 5:309:30-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tox.2013.04.011. Epub 2013 Apr 23.


An association between protein allergenicity and resistance to pepsin digestion in the gastrointestinal tract has been proposed. However, although widely accepted, such an association is inconsistent with known labile allergens and resistant nonallergens. Given the central role of antigen presenting cells, and in particular dendritic cells (DC), in the development of allergic responses, the stability of allergens to intracellular processing may be more relevant than resistance to extracellular pepsin digestion. We have characterised the expression by DC of cathepsins (proteolytic enzymes), and compared the proteolytic activity of the most highly expressed cathepsin with pepsin for a range of 9 allergens and 4 putative nonallergens. Cathepsin expression in bone marrow-derived DC (BM-DC) derived from BALB/c strain mice was characterised by flow cytometry; cathepsins D, E and S were identified, with cathepsin D being the most highly expressed. Digestion studies revealed that the majority of allergens (5/9) were pepsin resistant, whereas non-allergens (3/4) were labile. If the generation of pepsin-resistant fragments was considered as a feature of allergenicity, this increased to 7/9 allergens and 4/4 nonallergens. In contrast, most of the proteins examined were resistant to cathepsin digestion, with significant digestion recorded for only 2/9 allergens and 2/4 non-allergens. Chemical reduction (to mimic intracellular reducing conditions) increased the susceptibility of proteins to digestion by cathepsins, but did not improve discrimination between allergens and nonallergens on this basis. These data confirm that there is a general relationship between resistance to digestion with pepsin and allergenicity. The relationship is not absolute, but the information gained from this characteristic does provide useful information in a weight of evidence approach for allergenicity assessment. The most abundant cathepsin detected in antigen processing BM-DC, cathepsin D, is not an appropriate substitute for pepsin. The hypothesis that pepsin stability may be a surrogate for stability to digestion within DC may still hold true, but consideration of a single enzyme in this context is possibly an oversimplification.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Allergens / immunology
  • Allergens / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Cathepsins / immunology
  • Cathepsins / metabolism*
  • Dietary Proteins / immunology
  • Dietary Proteins / metabolism*
  • Digestion / immunology*
  • Female
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Pepsin A / immunology
  • Pepsin A / metabolism*


  • Allergens
  • Dietary Proteins
  • Cathepsins
  • Pepsin A