Background: Little is known about the perinatal development of Paneth cells (PCs) during gestation and the relation with necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). We aimed to investigate when PCs arise and when they become immune competent during gestation.
Methods: We included 57 samples of ileum tissue of fetuses/infants with a gestional age (GA) between 9 and 40 wk taken as part of a standard autopsy procedure. Hematoxylin-eosin staining and anti-human defensin 5 immunohistochemistry were performed. We performed a semi-quantitative assessment of (immune-competent) PC numbers per 10 crypts per tissue section per GA.
Results: The number of PCs and the number of immune-competent PCs increased with increasing GA (Spearman's rho = 0.41, P = 0.002 and rho = 0.61, P <0.001, respectively). Whereas significantly higher PC numbers were observed after 37 wk gestation (median 7, range 0-12) compared to preterm infants (median 0, range 0-15; P = 0.002), we counted higher numbers of immune-competent PCs already in infants with GA above 29 wk (median 6, range 0-18) compared to infants with GA under 29 wk (median 2, range 0-9; P <0.001).
Conclusion: The significant increase of immune-competent PCs starting from a GA of 29 wk mimics the rise in incidence of NEC during a similar postmenstrual age in preterm infants.