Scientists use lab-grown 'mini guts' to study Crohn's disease

The breakthrough could be a huge leap forward for understanding Crohn's disease, ITV News Correspondent Sally Biddulph reports

Researchers studying Crohn's disease have grown "mini guts" in the lab to help them further understand the condition.

The technique has helped the University of Cambridge scientists discover DNA changes that may play an important role in the disease.

The mini organs, also called 'organoids', could be used in future to help pinpoint more personalised treatments for individual patients.

Crohn's is a form of inflammatory bowel disease affecting around one in 350 people in the UK. The condition is lifelong, and one in four of those affected will start experiencing symptoms before the age of 18.

Symptoms can have a major impact on quality of life and include stomach pain, diarrhoea, weight loss and fatigue.

Treatment can involve extensive surgery, hospital admissions and exposure to toxic drugs.

In the new research, published in Gut, the researchers used cells from inflamed guts, donated by 160 people, mainly patients and adolescents, but also healthy people, at CUH to grow more than 300 mini-guts.

Matthias Zilbauer, professor of paediatric gastroenterology at the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH), said: “The number of cases of Crohn’s disease and IBD are rising dramatically worldwide, particularly among younger children, but despite decades of research, no one knows what causes it.”

He added: “The organoids that we’ve generated are primarily from children and adolescents.

“They’ve essentially given us pieces of their bowel to help with our research.”

By using the mini organs, researchers discovered that switches which modify DNA in gut cells play an important role in the disease and how it presents in patients.

These switches are attached to DNA that turn genes on and off – or turn their activity up or down – leaving the DNA itself intact, but changing the way a cell functions.

The study found that these changes in Crohn’s patients correlated with severity of disease.

Arthur Hatt, 11, was was diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of nine and has donated some of the cells from his intestine to the study.

He said: “I think it’s quite cool to be part of the study.

“It’s nice to know they’re trying to get more information about Crohn’s.”

In a message to other children being diagnosed with the condition, he added: “There are bad days and there are good days, but eventually you’ll find the right medicine.

“Sometimes it can take a really long time, but eventually they’ll find the thing that works for you.”

In the future, the findings could help patients such as Arthur access effective treatment more quickly.

His mother, Sian Hatt, said there were times when Arthur was able to attend school only for half days, and that even now holidays tend to be about getting rest.

Arthur particularly suffers during cold and flu season, as the treatments also tend to suppress the immune system.

The research was largely supported by the Medical Research Council, and was also supported through collaboration with the Milner Therapeutics Institute, University of Cambridge.

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