A $36 million grant will be invested over the next five years to study gastrointestinal conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The project will connect 70 researchers across Canada with patients and policy-makers.
It’s funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, Dalhousie University, IWK Health Centre, Ascenta Skin, and the Department of Pediatrics.
IBD, an inflammatory condition of the colon and small intestine, affects one in 150 individuals in Canada with nearly 10,000 new cases diagnosed a year, and this number is increasing. For reasons not fully understood, the Maritimes region of Canada has the highest IBD rates not just in Canada but worldwide. Researchers suspect an environmental factor plays a role, as well as known genetic factors.
IBD is caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors that leads to immune responses and inflammation in the intestine. It is known that bacteria plays an important role in IBD, and understanding the bacterial function would lead to better management of the disease.
“Humans are made up of more bacterial cells than we are human cells. There’s promising evidence to show that by altering the balance of bacteria in our guts – our microbiome – we can decrease IBD-related inflammation,” Dr. Tony Otley, a gastroenterologist at the IWK Health Centre and principal investigator for the pediatric component of the study, said in a press release.
“This funding will increase our research capacity at Dalhousie. Collaborations are already happening, but this will super-charge what we’re able to do.”
“Within 24 hours of changing your diet, you make changes to your microbiome,” Otley said. “We’re trying to understand if there’s a way to tweak the microbiome so that we can create a healthier one.”
Physicians currently manage IBD using various drug therapies, but many of them are associated with adverse effects, particularly after long-term use.
“With IBD, for example, you want to dampen down inflammation, which means dampening down the immune response,” Otley said. “But we know that when the immune system is dampened, people are more prone to certain infections. Also, our immune systems are an important surveillance for cancer. Immune suppressant drugs are a real concern for families.”
The effectiveness and safety of currently available drugs could differ from one individual to another. If the role of bacteria is well understood, these medications could be personalized to yield improved results.
“Rather than telling someone they have IBD and then providing them with a list of treatments, we hope that we’ll be able to tailor treatment plans based on what an individual’s microbiome looks like,” Otley said. “Ideally, we’ll be able to fine-tune diet and other approaches to optimize patient outcomes.”
IBD is generally associated with mental health, such as depression and anxiety, so the researchers will also investigate these issues during the project.
“Anxiety and depression are common in people living with IBD and IBS. And I think often we operate in silos, where we have the gastroenterologists doing their research and our psychiatry colleagues doing their research – each in isolation from each other,” Otley said. “But with this Canadian network, we’re really going to gain from everybody working together.”
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