Barrett oesophagus, in which a metaplastic columnar mucosa that can predispose individuals to cancer development lines a portion of the distal oesophagus, is the only known precursor of oesophageal adenocarcinoma, the incidence of which has increased profoundly over the past several decades. Most evidence suggests that Barrett oesophagus develops from progenitor cells at the oesophagogastric junction that proliferate and undergo epithelial–mesenchymal transition as part of a wound-healing process that replaces oesophageal squamous epithelium damaged by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD also seems to induce reprogramming of key transcription factors in the progenitor cells, resulting in the development of the specialized intestinal metaplasia that is characteristic of Barrett oesophagus, probably through an intermediate step of metaplasia to cardiac mucosa. Genome-wide association studies suggest that patients with GERD who develop Barrett oesophagus might have an inherited predisposition to oesophageal metaplasia and that there is a shared genetic susceptibility to Barrett oesophagus and to several of its risk factors (such as GERD, obesity and cigarette smoking). In this Review, we discuss the mechanisms, pathophysiology, genetic predisposition and cells of origin of Barrett oesophagus, and opine on the clinical implications and future research directions.
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