1. Human gallbladder mucin has been implicated as playing a role in the pathogenesis of gallstones. In previous studies no differences have been found in the content or composition of mucins derived from control bile or cholesterol gallstone bile. Until now, no differences were also found between these two groups of mucins with regard to their ability to cause cholesterol nucleation. In the accompanying paper we have reported that there is a strong heterogeneity of gallbladder mucins derived from individual patients (M. J. A. van Wijland, J. H. Klinkspoor, L. Th. de Wit, R. P. J. Oude Elferink, G. N. J. Tytgat and A. K. Groen, Clin Sci 1994; 86: 67–74). In the present study we further investigated a possible patient to patient heterogeneity of mucin by means of immunological and functional characterization of mucins isolated from hepatic bile of six different patients with gallstones.

2. Considerable heterogeneity was found. Two of the mucins barely reacted with a polyclonal anti-mucin antibody, whereas the other four mucins reacted very strongly. Lectin-binding studies indicated that the glycans of these two mucins expressed less D-N-acetylgalactosamine residues than the other four mucins. This was confirmed by analyses of the glycan compositions. These studies furthermore indicated that the glycans were of the O-linked type, contained α-D-N-acetylglucosamine and were fucosylated, sialy-lated and sulphated to different extents. Except for a strong heterogeneity in the sugar composition of the mucins, heterogeneity was also found in the biological activity of the mucins. The two immunologically diverging mucins nucleated cholesterol from model bile 1–2 days earlier and also caused an almost threefold more rapid rupture of cholesterol/phospholipid vesicles than the other mucins.

3. We conclude that considerable differences exist between mucins derived from individual patients and that the heterogeneity in glycan composition might play a role in the pathogenesis of gallstone disease.

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