Cell Imbalance May Explain Risk for Crohn's Disease, Ulcerative Colitis


An imbalance of regulatory cells may be the reason why some people are more susceptible to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other autoimmune diseases. The report comes from researchers at the University of Adelaide, who say the cell imbalance has been observed in people who have inflammatory bowel disease.

Inflammatory bowel disease, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, affects approximately one million Americans, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. The causes of this autoimmune disease, which is characterized by inflammation in the digestive tract, abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and fever, are unknown. The disease most often develops between the ages of 10 and 30, although a lesser peak develops in people between ages 50 and 60. Currently there is no cure, and the goal of treatment is to relieve inflammation.

The new study, which appears in the Journal of Clinical Immunology, reveals that people who have Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have a reduced number of regulatory cells and more “attack” cells that cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. According to a news release from the University, Dr. Nicola Eastaff-Leung, who conducted the research, noted that healthy individuals possess a mechanism to tolerate food in an appropriate manner. “But some people do not have enough of these regulatory cells and their body overreacts and goes into attack mode. That is where the inflammation occurs.”


Dr. Eastaff-Leung’s work may lead to a diagnostic tool for gastrointestinal diseases, perhaps a blood test to identify an imbalance of regulatory cells, which would reduce the need for colonoscopies. However, she also pointed out that “the second, bigger challenge is to work out a treatment that can restore the balance of these cells,” as well as determine why the imbalance occurs in the first place.

Thus far, evidence points to diet and lifestyle as being significant factors in the development of gastrointestinal disease. Dr. Estaff-Leung noted that inflammatory bowel diseases and many other autoimmune disorders are common in developed Western nations but rarely seen in developing or Third World countries. The very things we identify as progress may be harming our health.

Dr. Eastaff-Leung believes that the Western diet is a factor in the development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and in other autoimmune disorders. Another factor is the obsession with cleanliness and the use of antibacterial products, which she says “has gone overboard. Children need to be exposed to bacteria as they are developing in order to build their immune system naturally.” For the next year, Dr. Eastaff-Leung will be working with other scientists to develop a new biomarker for the regulatory immune cells, with the hope of eventually finding a way to correct the cell imbalance seen in inflammatory bowel disease.

American College of Gastroenterology
University of Adelaide news release, Dec. 16, 2009