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'Heartburn' damage or GERD not acid burn

DALLAS, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Reflux damage to the esophagus may be an immune response, not acid burn, U.S. researchers say.

Dr. Stuart Spechler and Dr. Rhonda Souza of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas said their animal study, published in Gastroenterology, found gastroesophageal reflux disease may develop in response to chemicals -- called cytokines -- that attract inflammatory cells to the esophagus.

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The researchers say they produced GERD in rats in a way similar to how it develops in humans -- by having acidic digestive juices from the stomach surge into the esophagus.

After the operation, the researchers said they expected to see surface cells of the esophagus die and the injury progress to the deeper layers. However, three days after the surgery, there was no damage to surface cells, but the researchers did find inflammatory cells in the deeper layers of the esophagus. Those inflammatory cells did not rise to the surface layer until three weeks after the initial acid exposure.

"Currently, we treat GERD by giving medications to prevent the stomach from making acid but if GERD is really an immune-mediated injury, maybe we should create medications that would prevent these cytokines from attracting inflammatory cells to the esophagus and starting the injury in the first place," Souza, the lead author, said in a statement.

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