Inflammatory bowel disease: ‘Massive step forwards’ as major cause of IBD discovered

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A major cause of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has been discovered which could be treated with existing drugs.

The breakthrough was described as a “massive step forwards” by researchers.

IBD is the umbrella term for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and such conditions are becoming more prevalent.

As recently as 2022, more than 500,000 people in the UK were living with IBD – almost double the previous 300,000 estimate.

But despite the diseases being more common, existing treatments do not work in every patient and attempts to develop new drugs often fail because of a lack of understanding over what causes IBD.

The breakthrough came as researchers discovered a part of DNA only active in some immune cells which cause inflammation in bowels.

There are no drugs that specifically block this.

However, ones which are already prescribed for other non-inflammatory conditions were predicted to be effective.

In tests, experts at the Francis Crick Institute along with UCL and Imperial College London found the medication decreased inflammation in the immune cells and also in gut samples from IBD patients.

But there are side effects with this medication in other organs – and the researchers are now trying to work out how to deliver it directly to immune cells.

IBD sufferers welcome development

Lauren Golightly was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2018 after suffering stomach cramps, blood in her stools and irregular bowel habits.

The 27-year-old woman said: “Crohn’s has had a huge impact on my life. I’ve had a rocky road since diagnosis, with many hospital admissions, several different medications and even surgery to have a temporary stoma bag.

“One of the hardest things about having Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is the uncertainty around it.”

She added: “I still experience flare-ups and can still spend quite a bit of time in hospital. Learning about this research is so exciting and encouraging.

“I am hopeful this could potentially make a difference for myself and so many other hundreds of thousands of people living with IBD.”

‘We’ve discovered a pathway’

James Lee, from the Francis Crick Institute and consultant gastroenterologist at the Royal Free Hospital and UCL, said: “Using genetics as a starting point, we’ve uncovered a pathway that appears to play a major role in IBD and other inflammatory diseases.

“Excitingly, we’ve shown that this can be targeted therapeutically, and we’re now working on how to ensure this approach is safe and effective for treating people in the future.”

Christina Stankey, PhD student at the Francis Crick Institute, and co-first author, said: “IBD and other autoimmune conditions are really complex, with multiple genetic and environmental risk factors, so to find one of the central pathways, and show how this can be switched off with an existing drug, is a massive step forwards.”

The research was published in Nature.

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