Xanthine Molecule's Role in Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Category Health

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Brigham and Women's Hospital conducted a study to uncover the molecular mechanisms of Th17 cell generation. This study found a role for purine metabolite xanthine in the generation of Th17 cells, even without the presence of microbes and suggested cells with protective properties. It is yet to be seen whether the amount of xanthine found in foods like coffee, tea, and chocolate will have a helpful or harmful effect in the gut.

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The human gut is inhabited by a diverse community of microbes that play a crucial role in both health and illness. Certain microorganisms are believed to be involved in the onset of inflammatory disorders, such as IBD, however, the exact process linking these microbes to the activation of the immune system and the eventual development of the disease is still not fully understood.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system, have conducted a new study to shed light on the factors that trigger the generation of Th17 cells in the intestine. Th17 cells are a crucial subtype of cells in the gut, and this study aims to uncover some of the previously overlooked molecular mechanisms and events that lead to their differentiation in the gut.

Th17 cells play a key role in the intestine as they can help to build a protective barrier against harmful bacteria and fungi

One of those players is the purine metabolite xanthine, which is found at high levels in caffeinated foods such as coffee, tea, and chocolate. The results of the study were recently published in the journal Immunity.

"One of the concepts in our field is that microbes are required for Th17 cell differentiation, but our study suggests that there may be exceptions," said co-lead author Jinzhi Duan, Ph.D., of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Endoscopy in the Department of Medicine at BWH. "We studied the underlying mechanisms of Th17 cell generation in the gut and found some surprising results that may help us to better understand how and why diseases like IBD may develop." .

Endoplasmic reticulum stress could play an important role in Th17 cell differentiation

While illuminating the steps leading to Th17 cell differentiation, the researchers unexpectedly discovered a role for xanthine in the gut.

"Sometimes in research, we make these serendipitous discoveries—it’s not necessarily something you sought out, but it’s an interesting finding that opens up further areas of inquiry," said senior author Richard Blumberg, MD, of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Endoscopy in the Department of Medicine. "It’s too soon to speculate on whether the amount of xanthine in a cup of coffee leads to helpful or harmful effects in a person’s gut, but it gives us interesting leads to follow up on as we pursue ways to generate a protective response and stronger barrier in the intestine." .

Xanthine is also found in meat, dairy, eggs, and leafy greens, as well as some energy drinks

Interleukin-17-producing T helper (Th17) cells are thought to play a key role in the intestine. The cells can help to build a protective barrier in the gut, and when a bacterial or fungal infection occurs, these cells may release signals that cause the body to produce more Th17 cells. But the cells have also been implicated in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and IBD.

High levels of xanthine could have some implications in other diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and IBD

Duan, co-lead author Juan Matute, MD, Blumberg, and colleagues used several mouse models to study the molecular events that lead to the development of Th17 cells. Surprisingly, they found that Th17 cells could proliferate even in germ-free mice or mice that had been given antibiotics wiping out bacteria. The team found that endoplasmic reticulum stress in intestinal epithelial cells drove Th17 cell differentiation through purine metabolites, such as xanthine, even in mice that did not carry microbes and with genetic signatures that suggested cells with protective properties.

This study is the first to highlight the role of xanthine in the gut

The authors note that their study was limited to cells in the intestine—it’s possible that xanthine may also play a role in other parts of the body, such as the bloodstream.

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