Defects in Certain Intestinal Goblet Cells May Cause Ulcerative Colitis

A new study published in Science indicates that defects in certain types of goblet cells in the intestines could be a factor contributing to ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. The study also found that there are multiple different types of goblet cells with different functions.

The interior of the intestines is coated in a thin layer of mucus protecting the fragile mucous membrane (mucosa) from bacteria and other microorganisms. Repeated contact between microorganisms and the intestinal mucosa can result in inflammation and cell changes, increasing the risk of intestinal cancer. The mucus layer, which is constructed from goblet cells, is up to 1 millimeter thick in a healthy colon.

The researchers separated goblet cells from other cells and investigated which proteins each individual goblet cell expresses. The study authors found there were many different subtypes of goblet cells, and their functions vary more than previously thought.

“We believe this is important knowledge that may enable us to influence the protective function of the gut in the future,” said Malin Johansson, associate professor at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, in a press release. “The system that maintains the protective intestinal mucus layer seems to be able to change its functions, and we could utilize this capacity by reprogramming the layer with various signals, for example by using new drugs.”

The study examined 1 of the specific types of goblet cells found on the outermost surface of the mucosa. These goblet cells provide another type of mucus, which contributes to the protection of the gut but allows certain nutrients to pass through.

“If the function of these specific cells is impaired, we see that unprotected cell surfaces arise,” Johansson said. “These lead to inflammation, both in studies on mice and in samples from patients with ulcerative colitis.”

These specific goblet cells were found in the study to be repelled by the mucosa earlier than normal in patients with ulcerative colitis, and the cells decreased in number as a result.

“To our surprise, we were able to observe this both in patients with active ulcerative colitis and in those who were temporarily asymptomatic,” Johansson said in the release. “This indicates that premature rejection of the particular goblet cells we've been studying damages the mucus protection and that this is a contributing cause of inflammatory bowel disease. It could also be a partial explanation for these patients' elevated cancer risk.”


Defects in a specific cell type may cause ulcerative colitis [news release]. EurekAlert; April 19, 2021. Accessed April 19, 2021.