Scientists continue to find new pathways to fight the diseases that ail us. New disease targets and lead discovery efforts have led to promising research into combating some of the most devastating diseases and disorders known to humanity. One such condition recently targeted by researchers—with promising results—is inflammatory bowel disease.
Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is a combination of two chronic digestive conditions (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) that affect over 5 million people worldwide. Both diseases result from a faulty immune system process that causes severe inflammation in the digestive tract. For Crohn’s disease, this can show up in patchy areas anywhere from the mouth to the anus. For ulcerative colitis, the inflammation is seen in the colon and rectum. Over time, this inflammation can damage the digestive tract’s lining and lead to severe abdominal pain, weight loss, fatigue, chronic diarrhea, and bleeding.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Children
The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation estimates that as many as 80,000 children living within the United States suffer from inflammatory bowel disease. Children experience the same painful symptoms as adults. Recurring diarrhea and vomiting as well as constant pain and cramping can make it extremely difficult for children to eat or exercise. These IBD effects force some children to miss school and after-school activities that are essential to maintaining a healthy body and socializing with peers.
As the number of global IBD cases in children continues to rise, increasing attention has been placed on the therapies and medications used to combat it. Physicians often administer antibodies to help block the inflammation that leads to digestive tract damage. Unfortunately, some children do not respond to this therapy, and of those who do, many continue to experience flare-ups later.
Now, new research shows that training the immune system to respond to the bacteria already present in the digestive tract can help patients avoid IBD damage. Researchers at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital have developed a lab process designed to mimic the conditions in the digestive tract in the hopes of isolating the disease mechanisms behind the abnormal immune response. To help do this, they crafted a series of three-dimensional “mini-guts” designed to test the ways immune cells interact with one another and with other cells.
In the mini-guts, researchers deployed a type of immune cell known as Tr1 cells. These cells reacted with the mini-gut environment as one would expect them to react within the human body itself. Researchers found that Tr1 cells produced a chemical that promoted mucus release within the mini-guts, thereby coating the guts’ lining with a protective layer.
With studies like this, researchers are hopeful that the introduction of Tr1 cells into the digestive tracts of children with IBD may help build a protective layer of mucus and dampen the effects of IBD inflammation. Researchers also believe that Tr1 therapy may help repair and even reverse damage caused by IBD.
More research is needed before Tr1 therapies can be used on humans. However, as researchers discover how to isolate and propagate the production of ideal Tr1 cell types in the lab, actual Tr1 therapy may be on the horizon. The future looks more promising than ever for children who live with IBD, and research around specialized immune cells is helping pave the way.