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Looking for causes of Crohn’s disease

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Children with Crohn’s suffer distressing and unpredictable symptoms and the number of young people affected is increasing. Dr James Ashton has been awarded a £240,000 Research Training Fellowship for a three-year study into what triggers this debilitating illness.

Crohn’s disease primarily affects the gut, causing inflammation and in turn symptoms such as diarrhoea, abdominal pain and tiredness. 

At least 115,000 people have the condition in the UK – and up to one third of people are under 21 years old when it is diagnosed. The numbers of children and young people affected is rising and this is especially worrying since children are usually more seriously affected than adults.

While there are treatments that can help, there is currently no cure and many children have to undergo surgery to remove damaged parts of the bowel within 10 years of their diagnosis.

Dr Ashton, who is based at the University of Southampton and also cares for patients with Crohn’s at Southampton Children’s Hospital, believes more research is urgently needed.

“Children with Crohn’s disease tend to have more severe symptoms and it can have a significant impact on their lives – for example, their growth, schooling and psychological wellbeing can all be affected,” he explains.

“A lack of understanding of what causes Crohn’s disease is hindering efforts to develop better treatments and use the treatments we have effectively,” he adds.

Crohn’s can be unpredictable, with times when symptoms are very mild followed by severe flare ups. With Action funding, Dr Ashton and his team are investigating what initially triggers the disease in children and also what causes symptoms to suddenly increase. “No-one knows exactly what causes the condition, but it’s thought that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are involved,” he says.

He will be studying two groups of children – one made up of children who have just been diagnosed and have yet to receive any treatment and one of children who have had Crohn’s for a while. He will look at the community of bacteria living in the children’s gut (known as the microbiome) and how this might interact with two other factors to trigger disease. One is the children’s genetic make-up and the other is their immune system. All three are thought to play a role.

“We hope that our findings will help in the development of better ways to predict disease severity, as well as new and improved treatments, with the ultimate goal of improving children’s lives,” says Dr Ashton.

Find out more about more new research here