Gene Discovery Might Yield New Crohn's Treatments: Study

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Japanese and American researchers have uncovered a master regulator gene that plays a crucial role in proper functioning of the immune system. Their discovery also means hope for new treatments for individuals suffering from Crohn's disease.

The team reported on identification of the Spi-B gene in the June 17 issue of the journal Nature Immunology. It included scientists from the Emory University School of Medicine and the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Japan.

The researchers made their discovery while studying the development of M cells, a type of intestinal cells with a role in jump-starting the body's immune responses, according to Medical News Today. Their intent was getting information on oral vaccines and bowel disorders such as Crohn's disease.

The two main types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are Crohn's and ulcerative colitis. They affect an estimated 1.4 million Americans, says the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. Decades of research has failed to uncover the precise cause of either disorder. Most researchers believe that Crohn's, which is incurable, is somehow linked to a faulty immune response when it comes to the regulation of bacteria in the gut.

The possibility of a new treatment is exciting for patients such as myself who have undergone multiple Crohn's surgeries after medications failed. It also offers hope for those troubled by the restrictions and side effects of these drugs during periods when they successfully control the disease.

The partial success of these medications often comes at a steep price. I have taken Azathioprine (brand name: Imuran), which suppresses the immune system, since 1992. Patients cannot receive any "live" vaccines while taking it, according to drugs.com, or get near others who've had one. This requires being vigilant to avoid picking up infectious conditions due to compromised immunity. It also means nixing important vaccines like a tetanus shot.

In the gut, M cells function like transporters. They ingest bacteria and move substances from the digestive tract to specialized tissues in the intestines. The team discovered the crucial role of the gene Spi-B in this process while studying mice.

In general, scientists have poorly understood differentiation in M cells. The Emory-RIKEN research suggested that Spi-B is responsible for the production of functional M cells. Mice without the gene had no M cells, and bone marrow transplants didn't restore it. The researchers concluded that Spi-B must occur in epithelial cells in the intestines for M cells to develop.

Information about M cells could be useful for developing oral vaccines. While most people get vaccines through injection, many immunologists believe that oral or nasal doses would be more efficient in conquering infections. Because M cells also clean up bacteria, information collected in the Emory-RIKEN study could be helpful in developing new IBD treatments and in bringing new hope to Crohn's patients.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She has a special interest in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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