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Pitt and UPMC Researchers Receive Grant to Study Genetic Links to Inflammatory Bowel Disease

PITTSBURGH, Feb. 7, 2011 – Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Center have received $75,000 from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) to further investigate the role the immune system and genetic links play in the development of IBD.

There are two major forms of IBD: Crohn’s disease, a chronic, relapsing disorder that can cause inflammation and ulceration of any part of the gastrointestinal tract, and ulcerative colitis, which affects the inner lining of the rectum and large intestine. The most common symptoms of IBD are diarrhea (oftentimes bloody) and abdominal pain.

“Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis impact the day-to-day lives of patients,” said principal investigator Richard H. Duerr, M.D., professor of medicine at Pitt’s School of Medicine and scientific director of the IBD Center. “Affected individuals live with debilitating flares of symptoms during the most productive years of their lives. IBD can dramatically affect a patient’s quality of life.”

Dr. Duerr, with collaborator Arthur Barrie, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, will use the funds to define the gene expression of immune cells that unnecessarily and uncontrollably injure the intestines. In particular, they will investigate the role of a type of immune cell called the T helper cell, which usually leads the immune system in fighting infections.

“Recent studies have shown that a particular type of T helper cell, called a Th17 cell, has evolved to fight infections caused by extracellular bacteria while also causing colitis in mice,” said Dr. Barrie. “Patients with IBD have excessive numbers of Th17 cells in their inflamed intestines, and we believe that the presence of these cells perpetuates IBD. Dr. Duerr and his IBD genetics research collaborators have found that genetic variants in several Th17 immune pathway genes are associated with risk for IBD. With this grant money, we will define the gene expression of Th17 cells, and from there, we hope to understand how IBD-associated genes alter Th17 gene expression to cause IBD.”

Dr. Duerr and Dr. Barrie believe this research eventually could lead to new biomarkers and new treatments for IBD.

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