Colonic epithelial cathelicidin (LL-37) expression intensity is associated with progression of colorectal cancer and presence of CD8<sup>+</sup> T cell infiltrate.
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Colorectal cancer (CRC) remains a leading cause of cancer mortality. Here, we define the colonic epithelial expression of cathelicidin (LL-37) in CRC. Cathelicidin exerts pleotropic effects including anti-microbial and immunoregulatory functions. Genetic knockout of cathelicidin led to increased size and number of colorectal tumours in the azoxymethane-induced murine model of CRC. We aimed to translate this to human disease. The expression of LL-37 in a large (n = 650) fully characterised cohort of treatment-naïve primary human colorectal tumours and 50 matched normal mucosa samples with associated clinical and pathological data (patient age, gender, tumour site, tumour stage [UICC], presence or absence of extra-mural vascular invasion, tumour differentiation, mismatch repair protein status, and survival to 18 years) was assessed by immunohistochemistry. The biological consequences of LL-37 expression on the epithelial barrier and immune cell phenotype were assessed using targeted quantitative PCR gene expression of epithelial permeability (CLDN2, CLDN4, OCLN, CDH1, and TJP1) and cytokine (IL-1β, IL-18, IL-33, IL-10, IL-22, and IL-27) genes in a human colon organoid model, and CD3<sup>+</sup> , CD4<sup>+</sup> , and CD8<sup>+</sup> lymphocyte phenotyping by immunohistochemistry, respectively. Our data reveal that loss of cathelicidin is associated with human CRC progression, with a switch in expression intensity an early feature of CRC. LL-37 expression intensity is associated with CD8<sup>+</sup> T cell infiltrate, influenced by tumour characteristics including mismatch repair protein status. There was no effect on epithelial barrier gene expression. These data offer novel insights into the contribution of LL-37 to the pathogenesis of CRC and as a therapeutic molecule.
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The journal of pathology. Clinical research, 2021