Page last updated at 13:49 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Baby protein 'could help bowels'

Bowel
Bowel diseases can lead to pain, bleeding, diarrhoea and weight loss

A protein which helps a baby's gut develop in the womb could hold the key to treating bowel disorders, according to scientists.

Edinburgh University tests suggest flaws in the GLI1 protein could cause inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis.

The conditions cause inflammation of the intestine, leading to pain, bleeding, diarrhoea and weight loss.

But if the GLI1 protein can be boosted some bowel disorders may be prevented.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a condition which affects one in 250 people in the UK.

If we can find ways to bolster these responses in people with IBD, we may be able to help prevent the painful attacks which are so devastating to patients
Dr Charlie Lees
University of Edinburgh

The team studied a chain of chemical reactions inside colon cells, called the Hedgehog signalling pathway, which controls the way it behaves and communicates with other cells.

The researchers found that some patients with IBD inherit a defective copy of one of the important links in the chain, GLI1.

The defective GLI1 protein is only half as active as normal. The Hedgehog pathway itself also signals at lower levels than normal when the large bowel is inflamed.

The results suggest that the GLI1 protein may calm inflammation within the healthy colon, and that this process appears to go wrong in IBD patients, causing their gut to become inflamed.

The researchers now hope to test whether strengthening the weakened protein will help during bowel disease treatment.

Healthy bacteria

Dr Charlie Lees from the university's Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, who led the study, said: "Everybody has billions of bacteria in the gut, the vast majority of which do us no harm.

"Our body's natural immune responses identify and eliminate harmful bacteria, whilst living in harmony with the healthy bacteria.

"But in people with inflammatory bowel disease, that response goes wrong and an over-active immune response against these healthy bacteria leads to chronic inflammation in the gut.

"It now seems that the Hedgehog signalling pathway, and specifically the GLI1 protein, is crucial to that response.

"We think it provides an important signal to certain types of immune cells in the gut wall, instructing them to adopt an anti-inflammatory state.

"If we can find ways to bolster these responses in people with IBD, we may be able to help prevent the painful attacks which are so devastating to patients."

The research was carried out in collaboration with the Universities of Michigan and Cambridge and the Karolinska University Hospital and is published in the journal of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine.

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