From The Labs

ERR-gamma marks the road leading to acid-producing cells

Indigestion, heartburn and other conditions are linked to disruptions of the normal activity of parietal cells, acid-producing cells in the stomach.

If you asked your friends and family if they had ever had indigestion, it wouldn’t be a surprise that they all said they had it, at least once. Scientists have made progress in our understanding of what causes indigestion and heartburn as well as more serious conditions including peptic ulcers, autoimmune gastritis and stomach and esophageal cancers. These conditions have one thing in common they involve disruptions of the normal activity of parietal cells (PCs) in the stomach, the only cells in the body that produce acid.

Dr. Jason Mills

“We know a lot about how PCs produce acid, which has led to the development of anti-acid medications that help us ease the uncomfortable feelings that sometimes follow enjoying a filling meal,” said corresponding author Dr. Jason Mills, Herman Brown Endowed Professor of medicinegastroenterology and co-director of the Texas Medical Center Digestive Disease Center (DDC) at Baylor College of Medicine. “What is surprising is that despite these conditions being so common and medically important, little is known about the generation and maturation of PCs from stem cells.”

Looking to gain new insights into the generation of PCs, the Mills lab at Baylor and collaborating institutions identified the genes that were preferentially expressed by emerging PCs to guide their development.

The team discovered a ‘training program’ driving PC development from stem cells and subsequent maturation into active acid-secreting cells.

Published in Cell Stem Cell, the findings can lead to new strategies to regulate PC function in different disease settings.

From stem cell to mature parietal cell

“PCs secrete hydrochloric acid, which generates the strongly acidic environment in the stomach with beneficial effects, such as killing bacteria in contaminated food, facilitating food digestion and promoting absorption of minerals including phosphate, calcium and iron. But acid can also be dangerous, causing conditions from reflux to peptic ulcers to gastric bleeds that can be life-threatening,” Mills said.

Studying how these cells are generated can help scientists understand conditions in which the stomach stops making PCs, which results in an acid-free stomach that promotes gastric cancer. Or the opposite, conditions in which the stomach makes too many PCs and too much acid.

Dr. Mahliyah Adkins-Threats

“Our first step was to generate enough PCs to study their development and maturation,” said co-first author of the study, Dr. Mahliyah Adkins-Threats, a graduate student in the Mills lab while she was working on this project. “PCs are long-lived (about two months), so we needed a system that would allow us to characterize the PC differentiation process in a shorter time.”

The researchers worked with a mouse model in which they eliminated existing PCs. “This triggered the production of new cells in which we were able to capture a first glimpse into the molecular and morphological steps involved when cells in the gastric epithelium commit to becoming PCs and then mature,” Adkins-Threats said.

Using single-cell RNA sequencing, a technique to identify the genes expressed by a cell, the team identified what genes the cells were turning on or off as they became more mature PCs.

The researchers discovered that of all the genes expressed by the cells, there was one, estrogen-related receptor gamma (ERRγ), a gene involved in regulating cell metabolism, that was expressed in both very young parietal cells and in fully functional parietal cells. ERRγ was sufficient for the cells to develop into PCs.

“Progenitor PC cells that were committed to expressing ERRγ, were destined to eventually become mature PCs,” said Mills, a member of and co-associate director for cancer education at the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Our findings indicate that ERRγ is responsible for regulating the differentiation and maturation of these acid secreting PCs.”

Parietal cells, white on the left, are absent from tissue sections lacking gene Esrr-g, as seen on the right. Image courtesy of the authors, Cell Stem Cell, 2024.

“Importantly, when we deleted the Esrrg gene in the gastric epithelium in mice, whole gastric sections completely lacked any PC lineage cells, indicating that this gene is not only sufficient but also required for stem cells to commit to the PC lineage,” Adkins-Threats said. “We see ERRγ as the ‘trainer’ of these young stem cells; it’s the one gene that orchestrates the dynamics of the metabolic pathways that shape stem cells into fully mature PCs.”

Path from stem cell to parietal cell. Image courtesy of the authors. Cell Stem Cell, 2024.

Co-first author Sumimasa Arimura, Yang-Zhe Huang, Margarita Divenko, Sarah To, Heather Mao, Yongji Zeng, Jenie Y. Hwang, Joseph R. Burclaff and Shilpa Jain also contributed to this work. The authors are affiliated with one of the following institutions: Baylor College of Medicine, Washington University at St. Louis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, University of Texas Health at San Antonio and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

This study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation-Graduate Research Fellowship Program DGE-2139839/1745038, as well as multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health including T32 DK077653, T32 GM007067, a pilot award from the NIDDK-funded DDC (P30 DK56338), NIDDK R01 DK094989, DK110406 and NCI R01 CA239645.


By Ana María Rodríguez, Ph.D.

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