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Crit Rev Oral Biol Med. 2003;14(3):188-98.

Mast cells and oral inflammation.

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School of Dentistry, The University of Queensland, 200 Turbot Street, Brisbane, QLD 4000, Australia.


Mast cells are mobile granule-containing secretory cells that are distributed preferentially about the microvascular endothelium in oral mucosa and dental pulp. The enzyme profile of mast cells in oral tissues resembles that of skin, with most mast cells expressing the serine proteases tryptase and chymase. Mast cells in oral tissues contain the pro-inflammatory cytokine tumour necrosis factor-alpha in their granules, and release of this promotes leukocyte infiltration during evolving inflammation in several conditions, including lichen planus, gingivitis, pulpitis, and periapical inflammation, through induction of endothelial-leukocyte adhesion molecules. Mast cell synthesis and release of other mediators exerts potent immunoregulatory effects on other cell types, while several T-lymphocyte-derived cytokines influence mast cell migration and mediator release. Mast cell proteases may contribute to alterations in basement membranes in inflammation in the oral cavity, such as the disruptions that allow cytotoxic lymphocytes to enter the epithelium in oral lichen planus. A close relationship exists among mast cells, neural elements, and laminin, and this explains the preferential distribution of mast cells in tissues. Mast cells are responsive to neuropeptides and, through their interaction with neural elements, form a neural immune network with Langerhans cells in mucosal tissues. This facilitates mast cell degranulation in response to a range of immunological and non-immunological stimuli. Because mast cells play a pivotal role in inflammation, therapies that target mast cell functions could have value in the treatment of chronic inflammatory disorders in the oral cavity.

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