Scientists at the University of California, Riverside have determined the distribution of the P1 and P2 isoforms of hepatocyte nuclear factor 4α (HNF4α) in the colons of mice. They report (“Opposing Roles of Nuclear Receptor HNF4α Isoforms in Colitis and Colitis-Associated Colon Cancer”) in eLife that maintaining a balance of P1 and P2 is crucial for reducing risk of contracting colon cancer and colitis.
What is already known in the field of cell biology is that the HNF4α transcription factor plays a key role in both diseases. HNF4α comes in two major isoforms, P1-HNF4α and P2-HNF4α (P1 and P2), but just how each isoform is involved in colitis and colon cancer is not understood.
“P1 and P2 have been conserved between mice and humans for 70 million years,” said Frances M. Sladek, Ph.D., professor of cell biology, who led the research project. “Both isoforms are important and we want to keep an appropriate balance between them in our gut by avoiding foods that would disrupt this balance and consuming foods that help preserve it. What these foods are is our next focus in the lab.”
The intestine is the only adult tissue in the body that expresses both P1 and P2. Dr. Sladek and her team have shown for the first time that these isoforms perform nonredundant functions in the intestine and are relevant to colitis and colitis-associated colon cancer.
“Our study also suggests that finding a drug to stabilize one isoform should be more effective than targeting both isoforms for treating colitis and colon cancer,” said Karthikeyani Chellappa, Ph.D., the first author of the research paper and a former postdoctoral researcher in Sladek's lab.
Dr. Sladek explained that the colonic epithelial surface has finger-like invaginations (into the colonic wall) called colonic crypts that house stem cells at their base. These stem cells help regenerate new epithelial cells that continuously migrate up toward the surface, thus ensuring complete renewal of the intestinal lining every 3–5 days.
The researchers observed that the P1-positive cells were found in the surface lining and the top portion of the crypt (green in the accompanying image) whereas P2-positive cells were mostly in the proliferative compartment in the lower half of the crypt (the proliferation marker is red in the image.) Furthermore, when transgenic mice genetically engineered to have only either P1 or P2 were subjected to a carcinogen and, subsequently, to an irritant to stress the epithelial lining of the colon, the researchers found that the P1 mice showed fewer tumors than wild-type control mice. When treated with irritant alone, these mice were resistant to colitis. In sharp contrast, mice with only P2 showed more tumors and were much more susceptible to colitis.
The researchers explain these findings by invoking the “barrier function,” a mucosal barrier generated by the colon's epithelial cells that prevents bacteria in the gut from entering the body. In the case of P1 mice, this barrier function was enhanced. The P2 mice, on the other hand, showed a compromised barrier function, presumably allowing bacteria to pass through.
Next, the researchers examined genes expressed in the P1 and P2 mice. They found that resistin-like molecule (RELM)-beta, a cytokine (a signaling molecule of the immune system) expressed in the gastrointestinal tract and implicated in colitis, was expressed far more in the P2 mice than the P1 mice.
“This makes sense since a reduced barrier function means bacteria can go across the barrier, which activates RELM-beta,” Dr. Sladek said. “We also found that the P2 protein transcribes RELM-beta more effectively than the P1 protein.”
Next, Poonamjot Deol, Ph.D., an assistant project scientist in Dr. Slaked's lab and the second author of the eLife study, will lead a project aimed at understanding how diet affects the distribution of P1 and P2 in the gut. She and others in the lab also plan to investigate how obesity and colitis may be linked. (Diet studies performed in Dr. Sladek's lab in the past illustrated soybean oil's adverse effect on obesity.)
“In the case of colitis, could soybean oil be playing a part in allowing bacteria to get across the barrier function?” Dr. Deol said. “We do not know. We know its detrimental effect on obesity. But more research needs to be done where colitis is concerned.”