Collagen-rich tissues support immune health

How GELITA’s IMMUPEPT can support a well-functioning immune system.

By Suzane Leser, director of nutrition communication at GELITA

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to be felt across the globe, recent research has shown that almost two-thirds of consumers are now saying that they are more conscious than ever before about their immune health1. This article discusses a new body of evidence demonstrating the role that collagen-rich tissues play in supporting a well-functioning immune system and the opportunity it presents for the development of nutraceuticals and functional food and drink.

Collagen-rich tissues and immunity

When it comes to the immune system, there are generally three lines of defence for the body. The first is a person’s skin which serves as a ‘surface barrier’. The second is a person’s unspecific immune response – their innate immunity; and finally their specific, adaptive or acquired immune response. These three lines of defence protect the body from foreign invaders such as pathogens and microorganisms, harmful bacteria, viruses and toxins. Collagen-rich tissues are becoming increasingly recognised for their role in supporting a well-functioning immune system, and the three main collagen-rich areas of interest are the skin, the whole-body extracellular matrix (ECM) and the bone marrow.

As the skin is the body’s most basic surface barrier, it is vital as a first line of defence. Highlighted by Eyerich et al., 2018 as ‘an active immune organ’, it works alongside other primary barriers found in the gut, lungs, eyes, nose and mouth, and in the interior surface of all blood vessels to protect the body. If this primary surface barrier is compromised, then opportunistic pathogens can enter the body and trigger the innate immune response.

The most obvious manifestation of the innate immune response is inflammation, a typical reaction to infection or injury. Though normally an important step in the immune response, it can lead to tissue damage and may eventually overwhelm the entire immune system when prolonged. Another line of defence is a person’s adaptive immunity, which is triggered when an infection progresses despite the activity of the innate immune system. Adaptive immunity’s is responsible for learning and recognising specific pathogens, and triggering a stronger, more rapid response if exposed to them a second time. The adaptive mechanism is regulated by cells and organs in the body, including the bone marrow, wherein all cells of the immune system originate.

How does the extracellular matrix (ECM) fit into the picture? Beyond the skin, the role of connective tissues in immune health extends to several other components of the ECM in the whole body. The matrix is a three-dimensional environment produced by connective tissue cells, where most immune cells are mobile and operate. The ECM is abundant in collagen fibres and in several other functional proteins. It is present throughout the body, and besides serving as a structural scaffold (Rowley et al. 2019), the ECM has also been cited as a dynamic site for numerous metabolic functions, including inflammatory response. Several components of the ECM interact with immune cells during immune response, demonstrating that ECM components are becoming increasingly recognised as active partners in coordinating the different parts of the immune response (Frevert et al., 2018).

How collagen can play a role in a well-functioning immune system

Consider how collagen peptides can keep the skin barrier intact. The epidermis is a wall of keratinocyte cells. The spaces between these cells are filled with lipids and so-called scaffolding proteins, which maintain the skin barrier intact. If this layer is broken down, pathogens reach to deeper tissues, causing infection. GELITA’s IMMUPEPT contains skin-specific Bioactive Collagen Peptides (BCPs) that have been optimised to stimulate the metabolism of keratinocytes, therefore regulating biosynthesis of the epidermal matrix proteins that form a strong skin barrier2. These specific collagen peptides keep the skin barrier healthy and intact and can withstand external threats. Lipids found naturally in the uppermost layers of the skin (eg ceramides), are also essential to maintaining the surface barrier. A sub-group analysis of 19 participants from a pilot study performed in cooperation with the University of Hamburg3 showed a significant increase in the lipid content of the skin barrier, after supplementation with skin-specific BCPs.

BCPs have also been shown to regulate the metabolism of other highly specialised cells of the connective tissue that produce structural and functional extracellular matrix components, particularly ECM fibroblasts. The fibroblast-specific BCPs optimally regulate fibroblast cell metabolism, stimulating the biosynthesis of several ECM proteins involved in the immune response. Effects in humans were shown in a randomised controlled trial involving 114 women aged 45-65 years, performed by Proksch et al. 2014. The results showed a statistically significant increase in Procollagen Type I (65%), a marker of collagen formation, after eight weeks of daily supplementation with 2.5g of fibroblast-specific BCPs.

The dynamic relationship between the connective tissue and the immune response is also shown by the cross-regulation between bone metabolism and the immune system. Bone cells, which were previously thought to only regulate each other and take care of remodelling the bone collagen matrix, have now been shown to regulate immune cells (Ponzetti and Rucci, 2019). Equally, immune responses often disturb bone metabolism, particularly when the immune system has been activated or becomes diseased (Sirufo et al. 2020, Del Fattore and Teti, 2012). As more is learnt about the importance of maintaining healthy bones to ensure a healthy immune system, findings are showing the importance of bone-specific BCPs in regulating the metabolism of the human bone-remodelling cells osteoblasts and osteoclasts.

The benefits of specific BCPs for bone health have been confirmed in the human randomised controlled trial by König, et al. (2018). Osteopenic postmenopausal women were supplemented daily with 5g of bone-specific BCPs for 12 months and over this time saw a significant increase in bone mineral density (BMD). It is possible that the positive effects of specific BCP®s to bone health may also contribute to immune health.

Product-specific trials indicate that the BCPs in IMMUPEPT are also able to downregulate important biomarkers of inflammation, tissue damage and oxidative stress, suggesting an immune-modulatory effect from IMMUPEPT. With the introduction of a family of Bioactive Collagen Peptides , GELITA can offer manufacturers of nutraceuticals and functional food and drink producers solutions to support a well-functioning immune system: the selected BCPs in IMMUPEPT 25 stimulate skin barrier keratinocytes and whole-body ECM fibroblast cells, while IMMUPEPT 50 adds bone-specific BCPs to the mix, contributing also stimulatory effects to the metabolism of the bone cells osteoblasts and osteoclasts.

The reason for the success of GELITA’s selected Bioactive Collagen Peptides – used in the IMMUPEPT range – is that they are designed to optimally stimulate the collagen-rich tissues that are becoming increasingly recognised for their role in supporting a well-functioning immune system – the skin epidermis, the ECM and the bone marrow.

This article was first published in the April/May issue of Food & Beverage Asia.


1 FMCG Gurus Survey, July 2019 ‘Changing consumption habits in the wake of COVID-19’

2 Collagen Research Institute (CRI), data on file.

3 ibid.