Tiny Bubbles Can See Crohn's Disease

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Crohn's Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease, the general term for Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, can be notoriously tough for doctors to diagnose and monitor. There is no single test to confirm the presence of IBD. But now doctors at the University of Virginia Health System have successfully tested in animals a new, painless, non-invasive technique to catch IBD early. Inflammatory bowel disease affects about 600,000 Americans every year and the disease can be both painful and debilitating.

This technique uses tiny microbubbles developed at UVa that are about the size of a red blood cell. Along with common ultrasound, the microbubbles measure the severity and extent of inflammation in the intestine. The outside lipid shell of these tiny microbubbles is coated with antibodies to specific molecules that are over-expressed during intestinal inflammation. The tiny bubbles then attach themselves to these molecules and are seen using ultrasound, allowing inflammation to be evaluated. Tests in mice with spontaneous Crohn's disease showed that the severity and extent of disease correlated to increased video intensity of the microbubbles in ultrasound images.

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"This technology has the potential to be used in a clinical setting to non-invasively detect intestinal inflammation, as well as monitor disease severity during the course and treatment of IBD," said Theresa T. Pizarro, Ph.D., associate professor of gastroenterology at UVa and lead author of a paper describing the imagining technique in the January 2006 issue of the journal Gastroenterology. "We hope that clinical studies in patients with IBD will be performed here at UVa starting later this year using similar microbubble technology. If proven accurate in patients, microbubble imaging could become the gold standard in IBD detection since it is non-invasive and cost-effective."

It's possible, Pizarro said, that the new technology could detect IBD earlier, before people at risk for IBD experience symptoms. "The technology has the potential to discriminate active intestinal inflammation from other GI disorders with similar symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome, without using invasive techniques such as colonoscopy or radiographic techniques," Pizarro said.

Right now, a diagnosis of IBD is made by a combination of clinical, endoscopic and radiologic findings.

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