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Elafin, a natural protease inhibitor expressed in healthy intestinal mucosa, has pleiotropic anti-inflammatory properties in vitro and in animal models. We found that mucosal expression of Elafin is diminished in patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). This defect is associated with increased elastolytic activity (elastase-like proteolysis) in colon tissue. We engineered two food-grade strains of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) to express and deliver Elafin to the site of inflammation in the colon to assess the potential therapeutic benefits of the Elafin-expressing LAB. In mouse models of acute and chronic colitis, oral administration of Elafin-expressing LAB decreased elastolytic activity and inflammation and restored intestinal homeostasis. Furthermore, when cultures of human intestinal epithelial cells were treated with LAB secreting Elafin, the inflamed epithelium was protected from increased intestinal permeability and from the release of cytokines and chemokines, both of which are characteristic of intestinal dysfunction associated with IBD. Together, these results suggest that oral delivery of LAB secreting Elafin may be useful for treating IBD in humans.
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