Researchers discover that the slimy substance in our guts also contains anti-inflammatory molecules.

A liter of mucus a day keeps the doctor away?

Many think of colds and respiratory infections when it comes to the slimy substance, which our bodies produce in abundance every day. But researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Immunology Institute say mucus could lead to new treatments for cancer and food allergies, as well as Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory conditions.

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Researchers at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine found that intestinal mucus contains cells that trigger a response from the body’s immune system to fight harmful bacteria and food allergens that cause inflammation, said Andrea Cerutti, senior author of the study and professor in the Department of Medicine at the school.

“No one had captured the antigens with the mucus before,” Cerutti said. “The slimy nature of mucus may have prevented a thorough investigation of this important component of our body.”

The research is published online in journal Science.

Previously, researchers knew only that mucus provides a barrier against harmful bacteria and food allergens in the intestines. They never went further in their research of the substance to uncover what Cerutti’s team found.

Cerutti’s group began the study as they were trying to understand how the immune system protects the intestines, where 80 percent of the body’s bacteria live.

Researchers isolated mucus from the intestines of healthy mice and pigs, as well as human intestinal cell lines. They also gave genetically engineered mice that lacked intestinal mucus and those with colitis, which causes inflammation in the colon and intestine, mucus from healthy mice.

“Bacteria can be very helpful but also very dangerous,” Cerutti said. “Our bodies actually contain more bacteria than our own cells. The intestine contains billions of bacteria. How do we cope without having any harm from them? In the past people studied a number of molecules, but one essential component of the whole picture was overlooked. And that component was mucus.”

The discovery could lead to future treatments for cancers, including colon, ovarian, breast, and pancreatic varieties. The anti-inflammatory cells found in mucus could also help those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease, Cerutti said.

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People generate a liter of mucus every day, most of which is stored in their intestines.

But don’t expect new medicines made from mucus cells anytime soon. Currently, there is no way for scientists to reproduce mucus outside of the body. A battery of further studies are also needed to see how mucus cells affect other bodily functions. And that requires time and funding.

“We might be able to generate a new type of drug with an anti-inflammatory affect,” Cerutti said. “And it would be somewhat natural because it’s based on something already in our body. But before doing that we need to better understand the biological properties in mucus. We can isolate mucus from animals, but you want to have human mucus in order to develop a safe therapy. We still have a lot of work in front of us.”