Crohn's disease associated dysmotility has been attributed to fibrosis and damage to enteric nerves but injury to interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) could also be involved. We assessed ICC in specimens obtained from patients with Crohn's disease and determined the relation between ICC and the inflammatory infiltrate, particularly mast cells (MC) using quantitative immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy. Ultrastructural injury to ICC was patchy in all ICC subtypes but ICC-Auerbach's plexus (AP) showed damage more frequently, i.e. swelling of mitochondria, decreased electron density, autophagosomes and partial depletion of the cytoplasm. Light microscopy confirmed a significant decrease in c-kit immunoreactivity for ICC-AP and an increased number of MC in the muscularis externa. Electron microscopy showed MC exhibiting piecemeal degranulation and making frequent and selective membrane-to-membrane contact with all types of injured ICC which suggests chronic release of granule content to affect ICC. Extent of ICC injury was not associated with duration of the disease. In conclusion, ultrastructural injury and loss of ICC-AP is evident in Crohn's disease. Epidemiological and morphological data suggest that ICC have the capacity to regenerate in spite of the chronic insult. The muscularis hosts a marked number of MC that exhibit piecemeal degranulation associated with ICC and may facilitate ICC maintenance.
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