ABSTRACT OBJECTIVES:Intact esophageal mucosal integrity is essential to prevent symptoms during gastroesophageal reflux events. Approximately 70% of patients with heartburn have macroscopically normal esophageal mucosa. In patients with heartburn, persistent functional impairment of esophageal mucosal barrier integrity may underlie remaining symptoms. Topical protection of a functionally vulnerable mucosa may be an attractive therapeutic strategy. We aimed to evaluate esophageal mucosal functional integrity in patients with heartburn without esophagitis, and test the feasibility of an alginate-based topical mucosal protection.METHODS:Three distal esophageal biopsies were obtained from 22 patients with heartburn symptoms, and 22 control subjects. In mini-Ussing chambers, the change in transepithelial electrical resistance (TER) of biopsies when exposed to neutral, weakly acidic, and acidic solutions was measured. The experiment was repeated in a further 10 patients after pretreatment of biopsies with sodium alginate, viscous control, or liquid control "protectant" solutions.RESULTS:Biopsy exposure to neutral solution caused no change in TER. Exposure to weakly acidic and acidic solutions caused a greater reduction in TER in patients than in controls (weakly acid -7.2% (95% confidence interval (CI) -9.9 to -4.5) vs. 3.2% (-2.2 to 8.6), P<0.05; acidic -22.8% (-31.4 to 14.1) vs. -9.4% (-17.2 to -1.6), P<0.01). Topical pretreatment with alginate but not with control solutions prevented the acid-induced decrease in TER (-1% (-5.9 to 3.9) vs. -13.5 (-24.1 to -3.0) vs. -13.2 (-21.7 to -4.8), P<0.05).CONCLUSIONS:Esophageal mucosa in patients with heartburn without esophagitis shows distinct vulnerability to acid and weakly acidic exposures. Experiments in vitro suggest that such vulnerable mucosa may be protected by application of an alginate-containing topical solution.Am J Gastroenterol advance online publication, 29 January 2013; doi:10.1038/ajg.2012.469.