The constellation of human inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, which both display a wide spectrum in the severity of pathology. One theory is that multiple genetic hits to the host immune system may contribute to the susceptibility and severity of IBD. However, experimental proof of this concept is still lacking. Several genetic mouse models that each recapitulate some aspects of human IBD have utilized a single gene defect to induce colitis. However, none have produced pathology clearly distinguishable as either ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, in part because none of them reproduce the most severe forms of disease that are observed in human patients. This lack of severe IBD models has posed a challenge for research into pathogenic mechanisms and development of new treatments. We hypothesized that multiple genetic hits to the regulatory machinery that normally inhibits immune activation in the intestine would generate more severe, reproducible pathology that would mimic either ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
Methods and Findings
We generated a novel mouse line (dnKO) that possessed defects in both TGFβRII and IL-10R2 signaling. These mice rapidly and reproducibly developed a disease resembling fulminant human ulcerative colitis that was quite distinct from the much longer and more variable course of pathology observed previously in mice possessing only single defects. Pathogenesis was driven by uncontrolled production of proinflammatory cytokines resulting in large part from T cell activation. The disease process could be significantly ameliorated by administration of antibodies against IFNγ and TNFα and was completely inhibited by a combination of broad-spectrum antibiotics.
Here, we develop to our knowledge the first mouse model of fulminant ulcerative colitis by combining multiple genetic hits in immune regulation and demonstrate that the resulting disease is sensitive to both anticytokine therapy and broad-spectrum antibiotics. These findings indicated the IL-10 and TGFβ pathways synergize to inhibit microbially induced production of proinflammatory cytokines, including IFNγ and TNFα, which are known to play a role in the pathogenesis of human ulcerative colitis. Our findings also provide evidence that broad-spectrum antibiotics may have an application in the treatment of patients with ulcerative colitis. This model system will be useful in the future to explore the microbial factors that induce immune activation and characterize how these interactions produce disease.
Paul Allen and colleagues describe the development of a mouse model of fulminant ulcerative colitis with multiple genetic hits in immune regulation which can be moderated by anti-cytokine therapy and broad-spectrum antibiotics.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a group of disorders characterized by inflammation (swelling) of the digestive tract (the tube that runs from the mouth to the anus), affects about 1.4 million people in the US. There are two main types of IBD. In Crohn's disease, which can affect any area of the digestive tract but most commonly involves the lower part of the small intestine (small bowel), all the layers of the intestine become inflamed. In ulcerative colitis, which primarily affects the colon (large bowel) and the rectum (the part of the bowel closest to the anus), only the lining of the bowel becomes inflamed, the cells in this lining die, and sores or ulcers form. Both types of IBD most commonly develop between the ages of 15 and 35 years, often run in families, and carry an increased risk of cancer. Symptoms—usually diarrhea and abdominal cramps—can be mild or severe and the disorder can develop slowly or suddenly. There is no medical cure for IBD, but drugs that modulate the immune system (for example, corticosteroids) can help some people. Some people benefit from treatment with drugs that specifically inhibit “proinflammatory cytokines,” proteins made by the immune system that stimulate inflammation (for example, TNFα and INFγ). When medical therapy fails, surgery to remove the affected part of the bowel may be necessary.
Why Was This Study Done?
Exactly what causes IBD is not clear, but people with IBD seem to have an overactive immune system. The immune system normally protects the body from harmful substances but in IBD it mistakenly recognizes the food substances and “good” bacteria that are normally present in the human gut as foreign and hence reacts against them. As a result, immune system cells accumulate in the lining of the bowel and cause inflammation. Several different pathways usually prevent inappropriate immune activation, so could IBD be caused by alterations in one or several of these immune regulatory pathways? In previous studies, mice with a defect in just one pathway have developed mild intestinal abnormalities but not the problems seen in the most severe forms of IBD. In this study, therefore, the researchers have generated and characterized a new mouse line with defects in two immune regulatory pathways to see whether this might be a better animal model of human IBD.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
To make their new mouse line, the researchers mated mice that had a defective TGFβ signaling pathway in their T lymphocytes with mice that had a defective IL-10 signaling pathway. Both these pathways are anti-inflammatory, and mice with defects in either pathway develop mild and variable inflammation of the colon (colitis) by age 3–4 months. By contrast, the doubly defective mice (dnKO mice) failed to thrive, lost weight, and died by 4–6 weeks of age. The colons of 4- to 5-week old dnKO mice were inflamed and ulcerated (some changes were visible in 3-week-old mice) and contained many immune system cells. Mice with a single defective signaling pathway had no gut abnormalities at this age. The dnKO mice, just like people with IBD, had higher than normal blood levels of IFNγ, TNFα, and other proinflammatory cytokines; these raised levels were the result of abnormal lymphocyte activation. Treatment of the dnKO mice with a combination of agents that neutralize IFNγ and TNFα (anti-cytokine therapy) greatly reduced the colitis seen in these mice; neutralization of IFNγ alone had some beneficial effects, but neutralization of TNFα alone had no effect. Finally, early treatment of the dnKO mice with broad-spectrum antibiotics completely inhibited colitis.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that dnKO mice are a good model for fulminant (severe and rapidly progressing) ulcerative colitis and support the idea that IBD involves multiple genetic defects in immune regulation. They also indicate that the IL-10 and the TGFβ signaling pathways normally cooperate to inhibit the inappropriate immune responses to intestinal bacteria seen in IBD. This new mouse model should help researchers unravel what goes wrong in IBD and should also help them develop new treatments for ulcerative colitis. More immediately, these findings suggest that combined anti-cytokine therapy may be a better treatment for ulcerative colitis than single therapy. In addition, they suggest that clinical studies should be started to test whether broad-spectrum antibiotics can ameliorate ulcerative colitis in people.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050041.
The Medline Plus Encyclopedia has pages on Crohn's disease and on ulcerative colitis (in English and Spanish)
Information is available from the UK National Health Service Direct Health Encyclopedia about Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
The US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases provides information on Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
Information and support for patients with inflammatory bowel disease and their caregivers is provided by the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America and by the UK National Association for Colitis and Crohn's Disease