Study sheds light on workings of Crohn’s disease, colitis
Researchers at the University of Calgary have made a breakthrough that could offer hope for people suffering from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Collectively known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, conditions such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis affect more than 200,000 Canadians. Characterized by inflammation in the gastro-intestinal tract, these diseases can be extremely debilitating and cause symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and weight loss.
Currently, diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are chronic, lifelong conditions. However, researchers with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the U of C’s Faculty of Medicine have made a discovery they hope will pave the way for the development of new drugs to be used in treatment.
“I think this type of research gives patients considerable hope,” said Keith Sharkey, senior author of the study published in the April edition of the journal Nature Medicine.
Sharkey said while scientists have long known that inflammatory bowel disease is characterized by the damage or death of neurons within a patient’s gut, they have not known the cause.
What the researchers discovered is the mechanism through which that cell death happens, aided by proteins called “pannexins.” They also discovered that when drugs are used to block the pannexins, cell death in the gastro-intestinal tract can be prevented.
The research, which took two years to complete, was tested on lab mice suffering from chemically induced “colitis.”
Roger Thompson, another of the study’s authors, said the “eureka” moment came when the researchers realized that – in the cases where pannexin had been blocked – the mice had considerably lower incidences of cell death.
Brian Gulbransen, the study’s lead author, said the pannexins involved in the death of neurons inside the guts of mice are also present in humans. That means the results of the research could be used to develop new drug therapies, sparing patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease from the distress of chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction.