The ErbB4 Ligand Neuregulin-4 Protects against Experimental Necrotizing Enterocolitis

McElroy, S. J.; Castle, S. L.; Bernard, J. K.; Almohazey, D.; Hunter, C. J.; Bell, B. A.; Al Alam, D.; Wang, L.; Ford, H. R.; Frey, M. R.

Am J Pathol. 2014 Sep 14; 184(10):2768-78

Abstract

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) affects up to 10% of premature infants, has a mortality of 30%, and can leave surviving patients with significant morbidity. Neuregulin-4 (NRG4) is an ErbB4-specific ligand that promotes epithelial cell survival. Thus, this pathway could be protective in diseases such as NEC, in which epithelial cell death is a major pathologic feature. We sought to determine whether NRG4-ErbB4 signaling is protective in experimental NEC. NRG4 was used i) in the newborn rat formula feeding/hypoxia model; ii) in a recently developed model in which 14- to 16-day-old mice are injected with dithizone to induce Paneth cell loss, followed by Klebsiella pneumoniae infection to induce intestinal injury; and iii) in bacterially infected IEC-6 cells in vitro. NRG4 reduced NEC incidence and severity in the formula feed/hypoxia rat model. It also reduced Paneth cell ablation-induced NEC and prevented dithizone-induced Paneth cell loss in mice. In vitro, cultured ErbB4(-/-) ileal epithelial enteroids had reduced Paneth cell markers and were highly sensitive to inflammatory cytokines. Furthermore, NRG4 blocked, through a Src-dependent pathway, Cronobacter muytjensii-induced IEC-6 cell apoptosis. The potential clinical relevance of these findings was demonstrated by the observation that NRG4 and its receptor ErbB4 are present in human breast milk and developing human intestine, respectively. Thus, NRG4-ErbB4 signaling may be a novel pathway for therapeutic intervention or prevention in NEC.

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