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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 December, 2004, 23:26 GMT
Target found to stop gallstones
Image of fatty foods
Fatty foods can trigger gall bladder pain
Scientists believe they have found a target in the body that could stop gallstones from being formed.

Although only tiny, gallstones can be excruciatingly painful and be cured only by surgical removal of the gallbladder in some cases.

As one in 10 of us develop them in our lifetime, experts have been looking for ways to prevent them.

A University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center team told Nature Medicine about their mouse discovery.

Stopping stones

Gallstones can develop when there is too much fat in the bile - the digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder that helps break down fats after a meal.

Most are the size of peas, but they can become as large as pebbles and cause problems.

Scientists have known that a substance called FXR is important in regulating bile.

Gallstones are terribly common and they will become more so with the diets that we are eating today.
Professor Anthony Axon of the Centre for Digestive Diseases, Leeds

To find out how important FXR is, Dr Antonio Moschetta and his colleagues studied mice which lacked FXR.

When these mice were fed a high fat diet they were particularly likely to develop gallstones compared to other mice.

As in humans, some mice appear to be genetically prone to gallstones.

When the researchers fed these mice high-fat diets, they too were likely to get gallstones.

Future agent

But when they also gave these mice a drug that mimicked FXR, the mice were relatively protected against gallstones.

"These results indicate that FXR is a promising therapeutic agent for treating or preventing cholesterol gallstone disease," the study authors said.

It is a long way from having a useable medicine at this stage.
Dr Martin Sarner from CORE

Professor Anthony Axon, of the Centre for Digestive Diseases in Leeds, said: "Gallstones are terribly common and they will become more so with the diets that we are eating today.

"It's an important area to research and any scientific advance is to applauded."

But he said gallstones are not usually picked up until they cause a problem, by which time the condition is advanced.

"So how any agent like this would work under those circumstances is questionable."

He said an agent similar to this might be useful if you could spot which people were at risk of gallstones and intervene early.

Dr Martin Sarner, of University College Hospital and CORE (formerly the Digestive Diseases Foundation), said: "Understanding the formation of the disease and how to interrupt it is very interesting, but it is a long way from having a useable medicine at this stage."

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