Background: The presence of dilated intercellular spaces in the stratified squamous lining of the esophagus is the pathognomonic feature of reflux esophagitis secondary to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In addition to stomach acid, bile salts are major constituents of gastroesophageal refluxate. The aim of our study was to determine the effect of bile salts cocktail at different pHs on epithelial junctions in an in vitro transwell model of stratified esophageal squamous epithelium. Discussion: Human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT) immortalized primary esophageal EPC1 cells were grown on polyester transwell surfaces in calcium-enriched media. The cells exhibited gradual stratification into an 11-layered squamous epithelium over 7 days, together with epithelial barrier function as indicated by increased transepithelial electrical resistance (TEER). This stratified epithelium demonstrated well-formed tight junctions, adherens junctions, and desmosomes as visualized by immunofluorescence and electron microscopy. When exposed to short pulses of bile salts at pH 5, but not either condition alone, there was loss of stratification and decrease in TEER, concomitant with disruption of adherens junctions, tight junctions, and desmosomes, leading to the appearance of dilated intercellular spaces. At the cellular level, bile salts at pH 5 activated the Wnt pathway (indicated by increased β-catenin Ser552 phosphorylation). Conclusion: In conclusion, in our in vitro transwell model bile salts at pH 5, but not bile salts or media at pH 5 alone, modulate Wnt signaling, disrupt different junctional complexes, and cause increased permeability of stratified squamous esophageal epithelium. These changes approximate the appearance of dilated intercellular space similar to that found in GERD patients.
- Bile salt
- Dilated intercellular spaces
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease