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Three-pronged attack

UTHealth researchers take on inflammatory bowel disease

Three-pronged attack

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is the umbrella term for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis causes long-lasting inflammation and sores in the innermost lining of the large intestine and rectum. These two conditions of the gastrointestinal tract affect about 11 million individuals around the world, including up to about one million children under the age of 18, and results in nearly 48,000 deaths annually. That is like losing the population of Texas City every year.

Common signs and symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease include diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, bloody stools, and unintended weight loss. While the exact cause is unknown, what we do know is that it results from a defective immune system. A family history of the disease may also make an individual more likely to develop an inappropriate immune response to viruses, bacteria, and other environmental triggers.

Doctors may use several medications to treat inflammatory bowel disease, such as pharmaceutical medications designed to interfere with the body’s response to inflammation. Some of these therapies, however, require long and frequent trips to a medical facility and can result in abdominal pain and diarrhea, the same symptoms the patient is treating. There is also a surgical option, which can trigger more complications.

Although IBD defies many standard treatments, several experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) are looking for new and effective treatment therapies to conquer the disease.

Brooks D. Cash, MD

Director, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition
Department of Internal Medicine
McGovern Medical School at UTHealth

“IBD, both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are among some of the most debilitating conditions we encounter in gastroenterology. Over the past two decades, we have seen tremendous advances in the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases, and we are currently studying multiple new pharmaceutical options for our patients with IBD. Over the last 20 years, we’ve integrated a class of therapies we call biologics, which are medications that are remarkably effective against specific areas of the immune system. Oral forms of these medications are being developed, and this is particularly exciting because patients will no longer have to commit to lengthy infusions or self-administer shots; they can simply take a pill.”

Holger K. Eltzschig, MD, PhD

John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Distinguished Chair
Professor and Chair, Department of Anesthesiology
McGovern Medical School at UTHealth

“The surface of the intestine—the intestinal mucosa—plays a key role in IBD. Dysfunction of the intestinal mucosa can allow bacteria to cross through this barrier and trigger uncontrolled intestinal inflammation. We observed that the intestinal mucosa develops a state of limited oxygen availability during inflammation, or inflammatory hypoxia. We were surprised to find that a specific protein stabilizes during IBD and promotes a protective response. Our studies suggest that medication that enhances the signaling effects of this protein could be an effective treatment for IBD. Indeed, several pharmaceutical companies have developed orally available compounds to enhance the signaling effects of this protein.”

Lenard M. Lichtenberger, PhD

Professor, Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology
McGovern Medical School at UTHealth

“IBD patients run a great risk of developing colorectal cancer, so I’m looking at inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, how it relates to this form of cancer, and how anti-inflammatory therapies can affect the disease. Specifically, we are examining the function of platelets, which play a role in blood clotting and a big role in cardiovascular disease. We’re seeing now that they play a role in inflammation and cancer. We have also observed that IBD patients have elevated platelet counts, and the platelets are in an activated state, which may contribute to cancer formation.

Additionally, we developed an aspirin formulation that has less bleeding and is less injurious to the gastrointestinal tract. We determined it was very effective in cancer prevention and has similar properties as far as producing platelet activity in diabetic subjects prone to cardiovascular disease. Our lab will be studying the role of platelets in colonic inflammation and the progression to colorectal cancer in some IBD patients, and the potential use of GI-safe anti-inflammatory drugs in the treatment of this devastating digestive disease.”

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