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Semin Immunopathol. 2009 Jul;31(2):185-205. doi: 10.1007/s00281-009-0165-4. Epub 2009 Jun 17.

Physiological and pathophysiological functions of intestinal mast cells.

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Department of Nutritional Medicine & Immunology, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany.


The normal gastrointestinal (GI) mucosa is equipped with mast cells that account for 2-3% of lamina propria cells under normal conditions. Mast cells are generally associated with allergic disease, and indeed, food allergy that manifests in the GI tract is usually mast cell dependent. On the other hand, mast cells have a number of physiological functions in the GI tract, namely regulatory functions such as control of blood flow and coagulation, smooth muscle contraction and peristalsis, and secretion of acid, electrolytes, and mucus by epithelial cells. One of the most intriguing functions of intestinal mast cells is their role in host defense against microbes like bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Mast cells recognize microbes by antibody-dependent mechanisms and through pattern-recognition receptors. They direct the subsequent immune response by attracting both granulocytes and lymphocytes to the site of challenge via paracrine cytokine release. Moreover, mast cells initiate, by releasing proinflammatory mediators, innate defense mechanisms such as enhanced epithelial secretion, peristalsis, and alarm programs of the enteric nervous This initiation can occur in response to a primary contact to the microbe or other danger signals, but becomes much more effective if the triggering antigen reappears and antibodies of the IgE or IgG type have been generated in the meantime by the specific immune system. Thus, mast cells operate at the interface between innate and adaptive immune responses to enhance the defense against pathogens and, most likely, the commensal flora. In this respect, it is important to note that mast cells are directly involved in controlling the function of the intestinal barrier that turned out to be a crucial site for the development of infectious and immune-mediated diseases. Hence, intestinal mast cells perform regulatory functions to maintain tissue homeostasis, they are involved in host defense mechanisms against pathogens, and they can induce allergy once they are sensitized against foreign antigens. The broad spectrum of functions makes mast cells a fascinating target for future pharmacological or nutritional interventions.

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