BACKGROUND: Barrett's esophagus (BE) is a premalignant lesion of the distal esophagus in which AND AIMS: squamous epithelial cells are replaced by metaplastic intestinal-like columnar epithelium that contains goblet cells. The factors that contribute to the progression from normal squamous mucosa to BE, Barrett's dysplasia, and adenocarcinoma are not well understood at the molecular level. Since reflux of bile acids is associated with BE development, we speculate that cells with an apoptosis-resistant phenotype are selected after long-term repeated exposure to pulses of bile acids. This will result in the survival of cells with unrepaired DNA damage, and a consequent increase in genomic instability leading to cancer progression. The major goal of this study is to compare sensitivity to apoptosis induced by the bile acid, deoxycholate (DOC), a known inducer of apoptosis, in normal esophageal squamous epithelium, normal colon epithelium, and BE. METHODS: Thirteen patients with a confirmed diagnosis of BE and four patients who had undergone clinically indicated colectomy were included in the present study. Freshly obtained biopsies were incubated with control medium or medium supplemented with 1 mM DOC for 3 h and then evaluated for apoptotic changes using transmission electron microscopy and immunohistochemical staining for two apoptotic markers, cleaved caspase 3 and cleaved cytokeratin 18. RESULTS: Our results indicate that BE is resistant to apoptosis induced by DOC compared to esophageal squamous epithelium and normal colon epithelium. In addition, electron micrographs revealed mitochondrial swelling in squamous epithelial cells treated ex vivo with DOC, which was absent in epithelial cells of BE. Formation of swollen mitochondria is an early marker of apoptotic cell death. Altogether, the data indicate that reduced apoptosis capability in BE tissue may contribute to progression to esophageal adenocarcinoma.
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