Alterations of the mucosal immune system in inflammatory bowel disease

J Gastroenterol. 1996 Dec;31(6):907-16. doi: 10.1007/BF02358624.


The normal intestinal immune system is under a balance in which proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory cells and molecules are carefully regulated to promote a normal host mucosal defense capability without destruction of intestinal tissue. Once this careful regulatory balance is disturbed, nonspecific stimulation and activation can lead to increased amounts of potent destructive immunologica and inflammatory molecules being produced and released. The concept of balance and regulation of normal mucosal immune and inflammatory events is indicative of how close the intestine is to developing severe inflammation. The normal intestinal mucosal immune system is constantly stimulated by lumenal contents and bacteria. The stimulatory molecules present in the intestinal lumen that activate and induce subsequent mucosal immunologic and inflammatory events include bacterial cell wall products, such as peptidoglycans and lipopolysaccharides, as well as other chemotactic and toxic bacterial products that are produced by the many different types of bacteria within the gastrointestinal tract. These highly stimulatory bacterial cell wall products are capable of activating macrophages and T lymphocytes to release potent proinflammatory cytokines, including interleukin-1 (IL-1), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). IL-1, IL-6, and TNF-alpha increase the presence of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class II antigen-presenting molecules on the surfaces of epithelial cells, endothelial cells, macrophages, and B cells, thus increasing their ability to present lumenal antigens and bacterial products. The proinflammatory cytokines IL-1 and TNF-alpha also increase the ability of epithelial cells, endothelial cells, macrophages, and fibroblasts to secrete potent chemotactic cytokines, such as interleukin-8 (IL-8) and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 (MCP-1), which serve to increase the movement of macrophages and granulocytes from the circulation into the inflamed mucosa. Thus, through lumenal exposure to potent, nonspecific stimulatory bacterial products, the state of activation of the intestinal immune system and mucosal inflammatory pathways are markedly up-regulated. This raises the question of whether there is a deficiency in effective down-regulation through the absence of normally suppressive cytokines such as interleukin-10 (IL-10), transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta), interleukin-4 (IL-4), and IL-1 receptor antagonist. Normally, the turning off of the active and destructive immunologic and inflammatory events should occur following the resolution of a bacterial or viral infection that has been appropriately defended against and controlled by the mucosal immune system. In inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), however, the down-regulatory events and processes that should turn off the immunologic and inflammatory protective processes, once the pathogenic agent has been cleared, appear to be deficient or only partially effective. We may find that we ultimately are dealing with disease processes that have more than one genetic or cellular basis. The improved understanding of the immunopathophysiology of IBD will allow exploration of novel immunologic and genetic approaches, such as gene replacement therapy, administration of a suppressor cytokine or an altered cell surface antigen, the administration of humanized monoclonal antibodies directed against proinflammatory cytokines, or the development of newer strategies against fundamental cell biologic mechanisms such as adhesion molecules.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytokines / biosynthesis
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Granulocytes / immunology
  • Granulocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulins / biosynthesis
  • Immunoglobulins / immunology
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / immunology*
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / metabolism
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / pathology
  • Intestinal Mucosa / immunology*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestinal Mucosa / pathology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism


  • Cytokines
  • Immunoglobulins