CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Researchers at the University of Virginia Health System have received a grant of $5.1 million over five years from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The grant will fund a multidisciplinary Program Project to begin to develop a cure for Crohn's disease by isolating new treatment targets.
"To date, no one has been able to determine exactly what causes Crohn's disease, and this has limited the ability of researchers to develop successful treatments. We believe genetics play a role, and with this grant we hope to pinpoint these genetic factors. The results of this work may lead to new treatments and an eventual cure for this devastating disease," said Dr. Fabio Cominelli, director of the Digestive Health Research Center at the University of Virginia and principal investigator of the Program Project.
Crohn's disease is an auto- immune disorder that causes inflammation in the intestines. It usually occurs in the lower part of the small intestine but can affect any part of the digestive tract. Inflammation may extend deep into the lining of the affected organ and cause ulcers. Symptoms of Crohn's disease are abdominal pain, diarrhea, intestinal obstruction, rectal bleeding, weight loss and fever.
Cominelli's team will test their theories using a new animal model that closely resembles human Crohn's disease. Unlike any used in the past, this model utilizes a strain of mice specially bred to develop Crohn's disease spontaneously, without any outside manipulation.
"One of the difficulties in studying Crohn's disease has been the lack of an appropriate animal model. Using these unique mice, we should be better able to draw comparisons to human Crohn's disease," Cominelli said.
The grant is divided into four projects. Cominelli will oversee the grant as well as direct one of the projects. The other projects will be directed by Dr. Marcia J. McDuffie, associate professor of microbiology and internal medicine; Dr. Steven M. Cohn, associate professor of internal medicine; and Dr. Klaus F. Ley, professor of biomedical engineering.
Complements clinical work
"We are very excited about these projects. This basic research is an excellent complement to the clinical work being done in Crohn's disease at the University of Virginia Digestive Health Center," Cominelli said.
According to the Crohn's Disease Resource Center, Crohn's disease occurs in about one in 1,500 people. It can begin at any age but is most typically diagnosed in adolescence or early adulthood. Crohn's disease affects men and women equally and is thought to run in families.
Crohn's disease can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to other intestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis, Cominelli explained. A thorough physical exam and a series of tests are usually required to make a proper diagnosis.