New Barrett’s Esophagus Research May Assist in Diagnosis and Treatment

An estimated 1 in 10 patients with chronic reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), will develop Barrett’s esophagus. This condition is characterized by esophageal tissue that has been replaced by tissue that resembles the lining of the intestine. Overexposure to gastric acid causes cellular changes in the esophageal lining, and this can be a precursor to esophageal adenocarcinoma.

If you have Barrett’s esophagus, it is important to manage your condition with the help of a board-certified gastroenterologist. Less than one percent of patients with Barrett’s esophagus develop esophageal cancer, but cancer of the esophagus is aggressive and difficult to treat. For this reason, researchers are committed to learning more about how Barrett’s esophagus develops so they can diagnose it earlier.

A team of researchers from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) recently made an exciting discovery: the “cell of origin” for Barrett’s esophagus. Jianwen Que, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at CUMC, and Ming Jiang, Ph.D., associate research scientist in CUMC's Department of Medicine, led the study. Using genetically altered mice that were predisposed to Barrett’s esophagus, the research team examined the gastroesophageal junction tissue for changes. The gastroesophageal junction is a specific place where the esophagus and stomach join, and this area is especially susceptible to GERD inflammation and damage.

Dr. Que and the team discovered an area of the gastroesophageal junction that had a high concentration of unique basal progenitor cells. These cells are similar to stem cells and can specialize into various types of specific cells.

Now that the team knows where to find the Barrett’s esophagus cell of origin, this new knowledge could streamline Barrett’s esophagus diagnoses. In the past 40 years, esophageal adenocarcinoma has increased by 800 percent, making it the fastest growing form of cancer in the United States. Early diagnosis and immediate intervention is imperative because esophageal cancer advances rapidly. Currently, only 20 percent of patients survive longer than 5 years after diagnosis (Source: Medical News Today). Improving Barrett’s esophagus detection and treatment could impact esophageal adenocarcinoma rates.