Inflammatory Bowel Disease Research

Up to one million Americans have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is characterized by frequent diarrhea and abdominal pain. IBD actually refers to two conditions—ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease—in which the intestines become red and swollen and develop ulcers, probably as the result of the body having an immune response to its own tissue.

Research Significance

While there is currently no cure for IBD, there are drug therapies aimed at reducing inflammation and preventing the immune response. Because these therapies aren't always effective, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) scientists hope to use special cells discovered in bone marrow to develop an injectable cell therapy to treat IBD.

Research Highlights and Innovation

The team has identified a population of stem cells in bone marrow that are prone to migrate to the intestine and contribute to the stem cell population there. They've shown that in a normal setting these cells can produce intestinal cells and suppress the immune system. In addition, the scientists have identified a second population of cells that can produce cells that support blood vessel formation in the intestine. With IBD, blood vessels in the intestine leak and contribute to inflammation.

Research Approach and Goals

The researchers hope that by transplanting a mixture of these two cell types into patients, a better therapy may result. The idea is to take a small sample of cells from a patient's bone marrow, isolate the special cell types and grow them in the lab, and then transplant cells into the patient, where they would replace the damaged cells. Gene therapy could possibly be used to enhance the cells' natural tendency to balance the immune system. Of course, much research will need to be done in the laboratory before the treatment is ready for patients. While these cells have been shown to function in a healthy intestine, scientists must ensure whether they can survive in the "war" environment of an inflamed intestine.