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The Making of Medicine

Finding a Better Way to Treat Crohn’s

Our Sana Syed, MD, and collaborators have launched an ambitious effort to find better ways to treat Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder that can rob the bowel of its ability absorb nutrients from food.

I know someone personally who was diagnosed with Crohn's, and it has reshaped her entire life. Living with Crohn's means just leaving home can be a major undertaking. Left untreated, it can be deadly. So better treatments are desperately needed.

Crohn's can strike people of any age, but it often manifests in teens and young adults. Children diagnosed early on often develop severe symptoms within only a few years. This can stunt their growth, weaken their bones and even delay the onset of puberty.

Dr. Syed, a pediatric gastroenterologist at UVA Children's, and her collaborators at UVA, Emory University and Georgia Tech are seeking to better understand Crohn’s at the most fundamental levels. Using a $3.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, they will build a sophisticated computer model of the internal workings of cells in the ileum, a section of the small intestine often stricken by Crohn’s. This will let them better understand the metabolic changes that take place inside these cells in patients with Crohn's, such as changes in how the cells use fats or sulfur. The researchers hope to identify biological markers or metabolic signatures that will improve the early diagnosis of Crohn’s and help doctors provide treatments better tailored to the needs of each patient.

After the model is up and running, the researchers will recruit volunteers with Crohn’s from UVA Health and Emory to provide tissue samples. They will use these samples to validate the computer modeling and confirm the metabolic signature of Crohn’s disease. The team also will evaluate whether “organoids” – miniature guts in a dish developed from tissue samples – are a useful tool to study Crohn’s. 

“Why some patients respond to therapy and others do not, or why some patients develop severe complications while others have only mild symptoms, is a mystery that we are trying to solve,” Dr. Syed told me. “By understanding why Crohn’s differs from patient to patient, we can identify new pathways to combat this disease and provide more personalized care to improve the lives of all our patients.”

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