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J Clin Pathol. Dec 2006; 59(12): 1261–1266.
Published online May 5, 2006. doi:  10.1136/jcp.2006.036772
PMCID: PMC1860537

Effects of Helicobacter pylori on the cadherin–catenin complex



The cadherin–catenin complex is the key component of the adherens junction in epithelial cells, and changes in this complex are implicated in gastric adenocarcinoma. Germline mutations in E‐cadherin have been described in diffuse‐type gastric adenocarcinoma. Helicobacter pylori infection is the first stage in gastric carcinogenesis.


To determine whether H pylori was associated with changes in the complex, and whether this was affected by virulence of the strain.


Epithelial cell lines were cultured with H pylori using the wild‐type pathogenic and non‐pathogenic strains and CagE null and VacA null isogenic mutants. Gastric biopsy specimens at endoscopy were obtained from patients with (n = 17) and without (n = 15) H pylori infection, and E‐cadherin and β–catenin expression was assessed by immunohistochemistry. H pylori was typed by polymerase chain reaction from these patients for CagE and VacA.


In vitro studies showed that coculture with a pathogenic strain of H pylori led to disruption of epithelial junctional β‐catenin expression, but without evidence of nuclear translocation or signalling. This effect was independent of a functional Cag pathogenicity island and vacuolating activity, but dependent on live bacteria. No marked differences in β‐catenin or E‐cadherin expression were seen in gastric biopsy specimens in patients with and without H pylori infection.


Acute H pylori infection disrupts junctional β‐catenin in vitro, but chronic infection by H pylori has no effect on E‐cadherin and β‐catenin expression, as seen in gastric biopsy specimens at the initial gastritis stage of the proposed Correa pathway of gastric carcinogenesis. A later effect at the later stages of atrophy or intestinal metaplasia cannot be ruled out.

Helicobacter pylori is the main cause of peptic ulceration and gastric mucosa‐associated lymphoid tissue lymphoma,1,2 and the strongest risk factor for the development of distal gastric adenocarcinoma.3 The outcome of H pylori infection is dependent on the host4 and environmental5 and bacterial factors.6,7 Strains possessing the Cag pathogenicity island, encoding a type IV bacterial protein secretion system,8,9,10,11 are more strongly associated with increased levels of inflammation and disease6 as are those producing an active form of VacA, a pore‐forming toxin that induces cytoplasmic vacuolation in vitro.12,13,14,15

The cadherin–catenin complex is the key component of the adherens junction between epithelial cells. It is important in providing structural support to cells by linkage with the actin cytoskeleton, and also in promoting epithelial cross‐talk. Changes in expression of proteins in this complex are implicated in several epithelial cancers including gastric adenocarcinoma,16,17,18,19,20,21 and germline mutations in E‐cadherin have been described in diffuse‐type gastric adenocarcinoma.22,23 β‐catenin is also an important cell signalling molecule (part of the wnt pathway) and has an important role in cell proliferation and oncogenesis.

Few data are available at present on expression of the cadherins and catenins in normal and inflamed gastric epithelial cells. A few reports suggest that H pylori disrupts E‐cadherin24,25,26 and stimulates β‐catenin signalling,27 and also that these mechanisms underlie gastric carcinogenesis. We assessed whether H pylori disrupted E‐cadherin and β‐catenin localisation in relevant cell lines, whether this resulted in β‐catenin‐mediated cell signalling and whether H pylori infection was associated with changes in E‐cadherin and β‐catenin immunolocalisation in vivo.


In vitro studies

H pylori strains and epithelial cells

The following strains were used:

  • 60190 (ATCC 49503, cagPaI+, VacA s1m1 (vacuolating)13)
  • Tx30a (ATCC 51392, cagPaI−, VacA s2m2 (non‐vacuolating)13)
  • 60190CagE− (cagE− insertion isogenic mutant of 6019028)
  • 60190VacA− (disrupted VacA− insertion mutant of 6019029)

AGS, RK13, HeLa and HT29 cell lines were used for coculture28 and grown in Lab‐Tek chamber slides (Nunc, Roskilde, Denmark) and 75‐cm2 tissue culture flasks. After 48 h of incubation, H pylori was added to subconfluent HT29 cells such that the final ratio of viable bacteria to epithelial cells ranged from 100:1 to 1:1. Cells and strains were grown in a 5% carbon dioxide incubator at 37°C for 24 h.


Cell lysates were obtained by scraping cells into radioimmuno precipitation buffer (7.5 ml 1 M sodium chloride, 5 ml 0.5 M Tris, 0.5 ml NP40, 0.05 g sodium dodecyl sulphate, 0.25 g sodium deoxycholate made up to 50 ml with sterile distilled water and broad‐spectrum protease inhibitor cocktail (Sigma‐Aldrich, Gillingham, UK)) after washes in phosphate‐buffered saline. Immunoblots were carried out on epithelial cell lysates28 using monoclonal antibodies to E‐cadherin (R&D systems, Abingdon, UK), α‐catenin (Transduction Laboratories, BD Biosciences, San Jose, California, USA), β‐catenin (Sigma‐Aldrich) and Cyclin D1 (Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Wembley, UK) at titres of 1:1000, 1:250, 1:1000 and 1:1000, respectively.

Cell fractionation

Epithelial cells were separated into Triton‐X soluble (cytosolic) and Triton‐X insoluble (membranous) fractions for immunoblotting by the addition of cytoskeletal extraction buffer (250 mM 2‐(N‐morpholino) ethanesulfonic acid, 125 mM ethylene glycol bis (β‐aminoethylether)‐NNN′N′‐tetra‐acetic acid, 25 mM magnesium chloride, 2.5% Triton‐X) to cells in tissue culture flasks. Fractions were microcentrifuged and pellets resuspended in sodium dodecyl sulphate running buffer before immunoblotting.

Immunohistochemical analysis

Immunohistochemical analysis was carried out29 using the following primary monoclonal antibodies: E‐cadherin (1:200), β‐catenin, 1:200). Slides were examined by confocal microscopy (Leica SP2 confocal microscope, 488‐nm laser line, Leica, Milton Keynes, UK). Assessment and scoring was described in Results.

In vivo studies

Patients and biopsy samples

Patients and biopsy samples were acquired as described previously28 with full ethical approval from the University Hospital Nottingham Ethics Committee. H pylori strains were cultured and typed by polymerase chain reaction for VacA and CagE.28

Immunohistochemical analysis was carried out on paraffin‐wax‐embedded sections of antral and corpus biopsy specimens,28 with staining using specific monoclonal antibodies to E‐cadherin and β‐catenin (Affiniti, Biomol International, Exeter, UK) at dilutions of 1:800 and 1:500, respectively. Criteria for H pylori infection were as stated previously.28

Assessment and grading of biopsy staining

Table 11 describes a validated method30 used to grade immunoreactivity for E‐cadherin and particularly for β‐catenin.

Table thumbnail
Table 1 Immunoreactivity grades

Scoring was carried out by two observers blinded to the patient's H pylori status (JRB and AZ), and epithelial cells were scored in three zones (superficial, proliferative and deep).28

Statistical analysis

All data were analysed using the GraphPad Prism package, San Diego, California, USA. Mann–Whitney U tests were used to compare median scores for histological grading in vivo, and t test was used to compare in vitro grading.


Characterisation of cadherin–catenin expression in epithelial cell lines

Western blot confirmed the expression of E‐cadherin, α‐catenin and β‐catenin in the positive control cell line HT29. No bands were seen for E‐cadherin in AGS, HeLa or RK13 cells (fig 11).). Immunohistochemical analysis and fluorescent microscopy confirmed the absence of expression of E‐cadherin in AGS cells and diffuse cytoplasmic or junctional staining with β‐catenin. In contrast, HT29 cells stained predominantly at cell–cell contact regions for both E‐cadherin and β‐catenin.

figure cp36772.f1
Figure 1 Western blots of cell lysates from RK13, HeLa, AGS and HT29 cells. Cells were grown in 75‐cm2 flasks before lysis with radioimmuno precipitation buffer and protease inhibitors. Lysates were standardised for protein concentration ...

We therefore used the colon‐derived HT29 cell line as our model cell line to study the effects of H pylori, as it expressed all four proteins at the correct predicted size.

Response of HT29 cell line to coculture with two different H pylori strains

Coculture of H pylori strain 60190 with HT29 cells led to altered distribution of β‐catenin, with decreased intensity of junctional immunoreactivity and without any increase in cytoplasmic or nuclear immunostaining (fig 22).

figure cp36772.f2
Figure 2 Immunofluorescent images of HT29 cells on confocal microscopy. (A,B) Stained for β‐catenin. (A) Untreated cells, (B) after coculture for 24 h with Helicobacter pylori strain 60190. Decreased membranous staining ...

To quantify differences with H pylori and assess any differences between pathogenic and non‐pathogenic strains, a series of images was acquired by confocal microscopy of HT29 cells untreated or cocultured with either H pylori strain 60190 (pathogenic), or Tx30a (non‐pathogenic). In each case, five images (randomly selected fields) were acquired at least 5 μm from the bottom or top of the field of cells and at least 15 μm apart. Both microscopists (JRB and SA) were blinded to H pylori status.

For slide analysis, 200 cell–cell junctions were counted and the intensity of immunostaining was graded as strong, absent or weak. For each field, the strongest immunoreactivity pattern was scored, in case sections had been taken from too near the top or bottom of the monolayer. This was carried out five times for each treatment and results were expressed as number of junctions per 200 counted sections expressing strong, weak or no immunoreactivity (fig 33).

figure cp36772.f3
Figure 3 Number of cell–cell junctions staining strongly for β‐catenin (out of 200 counted), for HT29 cells untreated and cocultured with Helicobacter pylori strains 60190 (pathogenic) and Tx30a (non‐pathogenic). ...

Untreated HT29 cells stained predominantly in a junctional fashion, and most cell–cell junctions showed strong immunoreactivity for β‐catenin (mean (standard error (SEM)), 168 (SEM13)). Cells treated with the pathogenic strain 60190 stained less strongly (mean 108 (SEM 13); p<0.05 v untreated) as did those treated with the non‐pathogenic strain Tx30a, (mean 149 (SEM 3) cells).

Western immunoblots showed that 60190‐treated cells showed less intense bands for β‐catenin, whereas no changes were seen for E‐cadherin (fig 4A,B4A,B).

figure cp36772.f4
Figure 4 (A) Cell lysates or untreated cocultured with Helicobacter pylori strains 60190 or Tx30a, blotted to β‐catenin. Bands are fainter with coculture, particularly for 60190. Duplicate experiments were run in parallel are shown. ...

Coculture experiments using serial 10‐fold dilutions of bacteria showed that increased bacterial dilution led to abrogation of the effect on β‐catenin levels (fig 4C4C).

Cell fractionation studies confirmed that in the Triton‐insoluble fraction (membrane‐bound), there was less total β‐catenin (fig 55),), whereas there was no change in the Triton‐soluble (cytoplasmic) fraction.

figure cp36772.f5
Figure 5 Immunoblots for β‐catenin on Triton‐soluble and Triton‐insoluble fractions of HT29 cells cocultured with Helicobacter pylori. A reduction in band intensity is seen for the Triton‐insoluble (membrane‐bound) ...

Role of bacterial factors in inducing β‐catenin changes

We analysed the role of bacterial factors using VacA and CagE insertion mutants of 60190 that we have previously shown do not express VacA or a type IV secretion system, respectively.29

Coculture experiments and subsequent immunoblots showed similar decreases with both VacA null and CagE null mutant strains, implying that neither VacA nor the CagPaI‐encoded T4SS contributed to the effect (fig 66);); however, live bacteria were required (fig 77).

figure cp36772.f6
Figure 6 Immunoblots to β‐catenin for cell lysates treated with Helicobacter pylori wild‐type strain 60190, and its isogenic cagE− and vacA− mutant strains. No differences were seen in β‐catenin ...
figure cp36772.f7
Figure 7 A representative immunoblot of HT29 cell lysates after coculture with Helicobacter pylori, which had either been pretreated with ultraviolet (UV) irradiation for 2 min (thereby killing the bacteria, confirmed by viable count) ...

Functional significance of in vitro changes

We examined whether a known β‐catenin target gene product, cyclin D1, was up regulated as we had not observed nuclear immunolocalisation (with presumed β‐catenin‐induced transcription of genes), but no differences were observed (fig 88).

figure cp36772.f8
Figure 8 Immunoblot of fresh HT29 cell lysates to cyclin D1 monoclonal antibody. No differences were seen between untreated cells and cells treated with Helicobacter pylori strain 60190. Equal protein concentrations were loaded in each well. Representative ...

H pylori and the cadherin–catenin complex in vivo

To examine whether changes in vitro applied in vivo, we used immunohistochemical analysis to examine gastric biopsy specimens obtained from patients with and without H. pylori infection. We stained biopsy specimens (antrum and corpus) from 32 patients (17 with and 15 without H pylori infection) for E‐cadherin and β‐catenin, and conventionally assessed for the presence of gastritis, atrophy, intestinal metaplasia and malignancy. H pylori strains were cultured and typed by polymerase chain reaction for CagE and VacA genotypes. Of the 17 strains cultured, 11 were CagE+, 6 were VacA s1m1 and 7 were VacA s1m2.

Slides were examined and graded for the amount and pattern (junctional, cytoplasmic or nuclear) of staining. As we were interested in proliferation and β‐catenin‐mediated oncogenesis, we focused on the proliferative zone containing pluripotent stem cells. Thus we divided gastric pits into three zones: superficial, proliferative and deep.

Gastric epithelial cells stained clearly for E‐cadherin in a predominantly junctional pattern (fig 99).). Staining was present in most cells in the epithelial cell layer. Quantification of staining showed no differences between biopsy specimens of patients with and without H pylori infection, or any differences associated with gastric atrophy or intestinal metaplasia. We found no association between bacterial strain type (Cag status, VacA genotype) and E‐cadherin staining intensity.

figure cp36772.f9
Figure 9 Gastric antral biopsy specimens stained for E‐cadherin from a patient (A) with and (B) with out Helicobacter pylori‐infection. Almost all epithelial cells are stained in both biopsy specimens, independent of H pylori status ...

Similar staining patterns were seen for β‐catenin as for E‐cadherin, with predominantly junctional staining (fig 1010).). Differences in staining were seen between the different zones of epithelial cells, with stronger staining patterns in deeper zones. Neither marked differences nor any relationship between staining patterns and bacterial strain type was seen between biopsy specimens of patients with and without H pyrori infection.

figure cp36772.f10
Figure 10 Gastric corpus biopsy specimens stained for β‐catenin (A) with Helicobacter pylori infection; (B) without Helicobacter pylori infection.


Our study shows that H pylori infection leads to a reduction in junctional expression of β‐catenin, and this effect is induced more markedly by a candidate pathogenic than a non‐pathogenic strain and is mediated by live bacteria. Experiments using cell‐free extracts and isogenic mutants suggest that the effect was not dependent on secreted proteins such as the toxin VacA or the Cag‐encoded type IV secretion system. Immunohistochemistry showed that in vivo β‐catenin distribution was not different between gastric biopsy specimens of patients with and without H pyrori infection.

The functional relevance of the changes we observed in β‐catenin distribution is not clear; we saw no effect on cyclin D1, which is induced by β‐catenin, and no nuclear translocation of β‐catenin in vitro or in vivo. Previous work31 showing that H pylori transactivates cyclin D1 in AGS cells in a manner dependent on time, dose and partly CagPaI was not conducted on a biologically relevant cell line.

The other important cell adhesion molecule we examined in this study was E‐cadherin, for which both germline22,23 and somatic mutations18 with prognostic implications19 have been described in gastric cancer.22,23H pylori has been associated with changes in E‐cadherin expression,24,32 although in the first study24 no images were shown and their grading system was not as rigorous as ours. Another study32 has shown promoter E‐cadherin methylation to be strongly associated with H pylori infection and also to be increasingly common in the Correa progression to gastric cancer. Our study showed no changes in E‐cadherin expression with H pylori infection either in vitro or in vivo.

One limitation of this study relates to the choice of the HT29 cell line, which our preliminary characterisation suggested to be suitable. However, the HT29 cell line possesses a truncated Adenomatosis polyposis coli gene product,33 and another study has shown β‐catenin phosphorylation patterns34 leading to accumulation of non‐phosphorylated β‐catenin. However, β‐catenin trafficking is clearly under multiple and complex control,35 and changes in antigen‐presenting cell cannot explain the differences we showed in membranous localisation and are unlikely to explain our observed lack of nuclear translocation. Besides this, we showed a lack of nuclear translocation in vivo, supporting our cell line data.

We carried out a careful and rigorous analysis of the effects of H pylori infection on the cadherin–catenin complex. The effects seen in cell lines may be due to acute H pylori infection, but once infection is chronically established (in vivo), no differences are observed between biopsy specimens of patients with and without infection. Therefore, we conclude that there is no effect of chronic H pylori infection on β‐catenin, although of course we cannot exclude an effect later in the Correa model of gastric cancer at the level of intestinal metaplasia or atrophy.


We thank Dr Susan Anderson for assistance with confocal microscopy.


Funding: JRB was supported by Fellowships from The Wellcome Trust (Entry Level) and the Medical Research Council (Clinical Training Fellowship). JCA holds a Senior Clinical Fellowship from the Medical Research Council.

Competing interests: None declared.


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