Washington University scientists play key role in Crohn’s, colitis initiative

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are playing a leading role in an international collaboration dedicated to understanding genes that contribute to inflammatory bowel disease.

The initiative may lay the groundwork for new ways to treat Crohn’s disease and colitis, the two most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease.

Approximately 1.4 million American adults and children suffer from these painful and incurable disorders, which cause chronic inflammation in the lower digestive tract. Current drugs can only alleviate some symptoms, which include abdominal pain, severe diarrhea and rectal bleeding.

The new project, known as the Genetics Initiative, is funded by up to $8 million from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. Herbert W. Virgin IV, MD, the Edward Mallinckrodt Professor and chair of Pathology and Immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is co-chair of the initiative. Ramnik Xavier, MD, PhD, of Harvard University, is principal investigator.

Many scientists believe inflammatory bowel diseases develop when the immune system attacks beneficial microbes in the intestine.

In recent years, investigators have identified 98 genes and specific locations in human DNA with potential links to inflammatory bowel diseases. The new study will use a variety of techniques to learn how these genes contribute to inflammatory bowel diseases.

Information from these studies will be used to create new animal models for further study of what goes wrong and to investigate new options for treatment and prevention. Virgin brings to the project his longstanding basic interest in immunity, infections and chronic inflammation, all known to be involved in inflammatory bowel disease.

Virgin and Thaddeus Stappenbeck, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University, have already created two successful inflammatory bowel disease models in mice that are giving them new insights into the complex mixture of genetic, environmental and infectious factors that may play a role in inflammatory bowel disease.

“I suspect we’re going to find that we’re dealing with many different subtypes of these diseases,” Virgin says. “One of our goals in the Genetics Initiative will be to see if we can determine which treatments will be most effective in any given patient based on the patient’s genetic makeup.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.