A Dietary Cholesterol-Based Intestinal Inflammation Assay for Improving Drug-Discovery on Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

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Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) with chronic infiltration of immune cells in the gastrointestinal tract are common and largely incurable. The therapeutic targeting of IBD has been hampered by the complex causality of the disease, with environmental insults like cholesterol-enriched Western diets playing a critical role. To address this drug development challenge, we report an easy-to-handle dietary cholesterol-based in vivo assay that allows the screening of immune-modulatory therapeutics in transgenic zebrafish models. An improvement in the feeding strategy with high cholesterol diet (HCD) selectively induces a robust and consistent infiltration of myeloid cells in larvae intestines that is highly suitable for compound discovery efforts. Using transgenics with fluorescent reporter expression in neutrophils, we take advantage of the unique zebrafish larvae clarity to monitor an acute inflammatory response in a whole organism context with a fully functional innate immune system. The use of semi-automated image acquisition and processing combined with quantitative image analysis allows categorizing anti- or pro-inflammatory compounds based on a leukocytic inflammation index. Our HCD gut inflammation (HCD-GI) assay is simple, cost- and time-effective as well as highly physiological which makes it unique when compared to chemical-based zebrafish models of IBD. Besides, diet is a highly controlled, selective and targeted trigger of intestinal inflammation that avoids extra-intestinal outcomes and reduces the chances of chemical-induced toxicity during screenings. We show the validity of this assay for a screening platform by testing two dietary phenolic acids, namely gallic acid (GA; 3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoic acid) and ferulic acid (FA; 4-hydroxy-3-methoxycinnamic acid), with well described anti-inflammatory actions in animal models of IBD. Analysis of common IBD therapeutics (Prednisolone and Mesalamine) proved the fidelity of our IBD-like intestinal inflammation model. In conclusion, the HCD-GI assay can facilitate and accelerate drug discovery efforts on IBD, by identification of novel lead molecules with immune modulatory action on intestinal neutrophilic inflammation. This will serve as a jumping-off point for more profound analyses of drug mechanisms and pathways involved in early IBD immune responses.

Original languageEnglish
Article number674749
JournalFrontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2021


  • dietary cholesterol
  • dietary phenolic acids
  • drug screening and discovery
  • inflammation and immunity
  • inflammatory bowel disease
  • innate immunity
  • myeloid cells


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