Physiological regeneration of colonic epithelium entails proliferation at the crypt base and cell loss by shedding or cell death. The aim of this study was to localise and assess the rate of apoptosis in normal and neoplastic colonic epithelium with respect to zones of proliferation. Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) was chosen as a model to study neoplastic transformation of colonic mucosa at an early stage. Apoptotic cells were detected in situ by TdT-mediated biotin-dUTP nick end labelling (TUNEL) in parallel to cells in cycle determined by Ki-67 immunohistochemistry using the monoclonal antibody MiB-1. By detection of genomic fragmentation, two different patterns of enterocytic apoptosis emerged: (a) apoptotic bodies being engulfed by adjacent epithelial cells, and (b) apoptotic cells with only subtle morphological changes being extruded into the gut lumen. The engulfment pattern was seen predominantly in the crypts of the normal colonic mucosa and, although very rare, was clearly confined to the basal proliferation compartment. The extrusion pattern was restricted to the luminal mucosal surface. Adenomas of FAP showed highly increased numbers of apoptotic bodies, which were scattered throughout the transformed mucosa. Both patterns of apoptosis were topographically intermingled although the extrusion pattern prevailed at the luminal adenoma surfaces. Whereas cells in cycle were somewhat more numerous in the upper parts of the crypts, apoptosis occurred with increased frequency at sites beneath the proliferation maximum suggesting an inverted direction of epithelial cell migration in adenomas. These results suggest two distinct routes towards enterocytic apoptosis in the colonic mucosa leading to engulfment or extrusion of dying cells. Adenomatous transformation of colon epithelium is associated with a considerable increase of the cellular turnover rate and with a severe disturbance of the microtopographical localisation of birth and death of enterocytes.
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