How Mucus Keeps Your Gut Healthy

Michael Harper for – Your Universe Online

Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s Immunology Institute say they’ve discovered an important role played by mucus in the gut. Though little was previously known about mucus, the Icahn doctors say the slimy, sticky stuff acts as an anti-inflammatory in the stomach and provides a protective self-regulating immune function.

The research also showed that mucus acts as a protective barrier against bacteria and toxins and may one day be used to treat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, and even cancer. A report of their research is published online in the journal Science.

“We asked ourselves whether dendritic cells in the gut could capture mucus, as well as bacteria and food antigens,” said senior author Andrea Cerutti, MD, PhD in a statement. Cerutti is a professor of medicine at the Icahn school and says the dendritic cells in mucus are responsible for triggering an immune response in the body.

“We found that whenever mucus was present, it was stimulating the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines [regulatory proteins released by the cells of the immune system that act to regulate an immune response],” explained Cerutti in a statement. In other words, mucus doesn’t just act as a barrier, it also acts as a turret to take out incoming dangers.

The human body is capable of producing upwards of a liter of mucus every day through mucosal tissues, yet little research has ever been done to better understand the stuff. In fact, many doctors and researchers assumed mucus was a bad thing, as more mucus is generally produced when a person is feeling ill. Yet while many doctors ignored mucus, they were continually puzzled by the body’s immunity to potentially dangerous bacteria living in the gut.

“Immunologists have always been interested in finding out why we do not develop an inflammatory reaction to the trillions of bacteria and large amounts of food antigens that come in contact with our intestinal mucosa,” explained PhD student Maurizio Gentile.

“Yet, these same agents cause dangerous inflammatory reactions and even death when other parts of our body are exposed to them. The discovery published in this study helps to explain this long-standing question.”

During their research the doctors found that a molecule called MUC2 is responsible for giving mucus its protective powers. It’s now understood that MUC2 both acts as a barrier and sends the anti-inflammatory signals to the dendritic cells. Because mucus is so common, the doctors involved in this research say others will be able to carry their work even further.

“By showing the beneficial anti-inflammatory activity of mucus, our work opens up a broad field of research,” said Dr. Linda Cassis, who helped Dr. Cerutti for this study.

“The natural pharmacological properties of mucus might provide a promising complementary way to treat inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.”

The researchers suggest that patients with diseases such as Chrohn’s or ulcerative colitis could benefit from synthesized medicines which are based on the MUC2 compound in mucus. The same compounds may also be used in medicines to protect against cancerous cells.

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