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Harnessing microbes to treat gut pain

Queen’s University researcher receives funding to help those suffering with pain from inflammatory bowel disease.

The digestion of food is a complex process and millions of different types of bacteria are  one part of the process that help get the job done

That said, there are a number of bacterium present in a healthy bowel that perform the unexpected function of helping suppress gut pain. Queen’s University researcher (Department of Medicine and Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) Alan Lomax is studying how that bacterium could be the secret to suppressing pain for people living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

To support the five-year project, Dr. Lomax, who is also scientist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre’s Gastrointestinal Diseases Research Unit, has been awarded $790,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study how the presence of some human gut microbes can help modulate the pain of IBD such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.  Canada has the highest rate of IBD in the world.

The project builds on his group’s discovery that the pain suppressing bacterium is present in healthy bowels.  This bacterium is missing in many patients with IBD, which may remove a brake on the pain that these patients experience. Their research has also shown that other gut microbes from patients with IBD can produce substances that cause pain.

“A number of studies have showed that this pain-relieving bacterium is absent in patients with IBD,” says Dr. Lomax.. “We’ll identify what chemicals those bacteria are producing, and whether those secretions could be used to relieve pain.”

The research team will also use metagenomics analysis to understand how the changes in microbiota in patients with IBD lead to worsening pain. Ultimately the researchers hope to develop a microbe-based treatment for IBD that is a safer and more effective alternative to existing opioid pain medications.

The study is part of a growing body of research that has linked gut microbes to several illnesses including depression, anxiety, diabetes, autism, and even cancer.

“These bacteria have all sorts of influences around the body,” Dr. Lomax says. “The more we understand about how these microbes affect health, the more we can move towards designing new treatments that target these microbes.”

For more information on research at Queen’s, visit the new Queen’s Research website.