In the majority of animals receiving 300 mM or 300 mM butyric acid, histologic examination revealed intestinal necrosis of some degree, with the depth of involvement in most cases extending down to the submucosa or muscularis propria (histologic scores of 3–5). The areas of necrosis were associated with dense neutrophilic infiltrates. Of the animals receiving 150 mM acetic acid or 150 mM butyric acid, only 4 of the 21 showed intestinal necrosis, which was confined to the mucosa and accompanied by acute inflammation. All remaining samples in those groups were either histologically normal or showed only mild acute inflammation, consisting of slight neutrophilic infiltrates within the lamina propria. There was no appreciable difference between the injury induced by acetic acid and butyric acid. No histologic injuries were identified in the ileum or colon in the rats that received either 150 mM or 300 mM lactic acid at either 150 mmol/L or 300 mmol/L. All intestinal tissues from the normal saline control group were normal. The mean histologic injury scores for distal ileum and colon from all seven groups are presented in Figures 4 and 5, respectively. Representative photomicrographs from different histologic injury scores are presented in Figure 6.
Prematurity, formula feeding, and bacterial colonization have been recognized as major risk factors for NEC (2). Clark et al. (16) suggested that intraluminal biochemical changes caused by bacterial fermentation of unabsorbed carbohydrates may be responsible for the development of NEC in premature infants. By examining the intestinal contents at or adjacent to the site of perforation or necrosis in 17 infants requiring surgery for advanced NEC, they found 16 of 17 patients with NEC had intraluminal contents with a pH of less than 5 (pH range, 3.8–4.6). However, organic acid concentrations were not measured. Increased breath hydrogen excretion is found in patients with NEC even before the onset of clinical symptoms (17,18), supporting the theory that bacterial fermentation products may promote the development of NEC in premature infants. Pneumatosis intestinalis in NEC patients is also thought to be secondary to hydrogen gas produced by bacterial fermentation (19).
In our study, we have demonstrated that luminal administration of acetic acid or butyric acid, two of the main SCFAs produced by bacterial fermentation of undigested carbohydrates, produces dose-dependent intestinal mucosal injury in newborn rats at pH 4.0, a pH chosen to resemble the acidic milieu encountered in NEC (16). Similar levels of injury are demonstrated for both acetic acid and butyric acid, with the injury involving the colon and the distal ileum and resembling human NEC histologically and clinically (20). Based on histology, the injury appeared to be acute inflammation and necrosis. Furthermore, additional experiments performed later showed that the colonic tissue myeloperoxidase activity was significantly increased in the rats with butyric acid–induced intestinal mucosal injury compared with that of normal saline–treated control animals (data not shown). The tissue inflammation and edema, decreased oral intake and increased tissue breakdown may contribute to the increase in colon wet weight and the decrease in daily body weight gain in the rats that received high-dose SCFAs. The colon weight and the change in daily body weight gain might possibly be simple and objective parameters to quantify the degree of intestinal injury in the experimental situation. Relative immaturity in the gastrointestinal tract of newborn rats and the completion of gut bacterial colonization in 10 days' postnatal age may make our study relevant to NEC in premature infants.
However, whether endogenous luminal SCFAs can produce a similar injurious effect in premature infants requires further study. A beneficial effect of the presence of SCFAs in the colon has been speculated (21). SCFAs have even been proposed as therapy for patients with inflammatory bowel disease and experimental colitis (22–25). Paradoxically, butyrate can also lead to apoptosis and is cytotoxic in high concentrations (26,27). The concentration of luminal SCFAs in some premature infants may be increased because of overproduction to a level high enough to cause intestinal mucosal injury. Inability to clear the intraluminal SCFAs because of poor intestinal motility in premature infants may also contribute to the pathology of NEC. This would explain all three major risk factors for NEC, i.e., prematurity, enteral feeding and bacterial colonization. Unfortunately, no data are available on the physiologic concentration of SCFAs in the proximal colon and distal ileum of premature infants receiving enteral feeding. Furthermore, we do not know the colonic luminal SCFA concentration in those premature infants who demonstrated increased bacterial fermentation before the development of NEC (17,18). The total SCFA concentration in the stool of normal full-term infants is most likely less than 100 mmol/L (28). However, the concentration of SCFAs in proximal colon content is usually much higher than that of the distal colon (29–31). The concentration of total SCFAs in proximal colon in premature infants may reach 200 mmol/L or even 300 mmol/L when maldigestion and poor motility are present. Since both acetic acid and butyric acid have similar injurious effects, the range of total SCFA concentration and prolonged long-term exposure may cause intestinal mucosal injury, leading to NEC in premature infant.
Luminal administration of lactic acid, another major organic acid produced in the colon via bacterial fermentation of undigested carbohydrates, at the same concentration and pH, did not cause gross or microscopic intestinal injury in our model. The mechanism for this difference in effect is not clear. Our findings are different from those of Argenzio et al. (32). They found that both sodium acetate and sodium lactate in concentration of 100 mmol/L at pH 4.0 induce similar reversible injury to porcine colon. In their study, both salt solutions but not the organic acid solutions were used, and the pH of the solutions was adjusted with H3PO4, an inorganic acid. The difference may also be a result of different methods or animal species used in the experiments. Furthermore, after pH adjustment with NaOH, the final osmolarity for both butyric acid 300 mmol/L and acetic acid 300 mmol/L solutions was about 340 mOsm/L. This osmolarity alone was unlikely to produce the mucosal injury seen in our experiments. For reassurance, additional experiments were performed. We found that in the normal saline control or 300 mM lactic acid group, increasing the final osmolarity to 500 mOsm/L with sodium chloride or sodium lactate did not produce any identifiable mucosal injury (data not shown).
Our findings may be correlated with the clinical observation that premature infants on breast milk feeding have a much lower incidence of NEC (33). In fact, breast milk promotes lactic acid–producing bacterial colonization so that breast-fed babies produce more lactic acid, while formula fed infants have higher concentrations of SCFAs in their stools (28,34). Administration of lactic acid–producing bacterial species can increase the production of lactic acid and reduce the concentration of SCFAs (35). Some of the probiotics have been shown to reduce the incidence of NEC in experimental animal models as well as in one clinical trial (36–38). We speculate that the beneficial effect of probiotics may be a result of preferential production of lactic acid instead of SCFAs by the probiotics. Further studies are needed to validate this speculation. A better understanding of the luminal production of lactic acid and SCFAs by intestinal flora in premature infants, and their role in the pathogenesis of NEC, may lead to the development of novel strategies to prevent NEC.
The authors thank Professor Rami Eliakim and Dr. Robert Green for the advice and careful review of the manuscript.
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