Researchers are exploring two possible new treatments — one in trials, the other still speculative — for Crohn’s disease, a genetically linked digestive-tract disorder suffered by an estimated 500,000 Americans, mostly Jews of Ashkenazic descent.
Discovered by Dr. Burrill Crohn in 1932, Crohn’s, which is similar to ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease, is a chronic disorder that manifests itself as inflammation throughout the digestive or gastrointestinal tracts. It can be found anywhere from the mouth to the anus, although it appears most commonly in the small intestine and colon. Crohn’s is four to five times more likely to occur in Ashkenazic Jews of European descent than in the general population.
One possible treatment involves a preparation of proteins called Alequel. The proteins in Alequel are drawn from a biopsy of the patient’s own colon cells and administered orally. This year, researchers at Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem conducted a clinical trial in which 31 patients with moderate to severe Crohn’s were randomly assigned to take oral Alequel or a placebo. Of the two groups, 58% of the patients in the group taking Alequel had a complete remission of symptoms, compared with 29% of those taking the placebo.
Scientists believe that Crohn’s is an autoimmune disorder in which the symptoms are caused when the body attacks itself because it doesn’t recognize certain proteins. They hope that Alequel will make the bowel “conscious” of the antigens it would generally attack, hence ending the symptoms. Because each individual has specific antigens that need to be recognized by the body, they personalize the medicine giving each patient a preparation from his own biopsy.
“We teach the immune system to recognize the self of the immune system,” said Eran Goldin, a professor of Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center.
The John Hopkins Inflammatory Bowel Disease Family Unit is spearheading another potential solution to the disorder — one that is still in the realm of theory.
Teaming up with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Greater Washington D.C./Virginia Chapter, the Hopkins unit has the ambitious goal of collecting spit samples from 10,000 Ashkenazic Jews in hopes that it will lead to a vaccine or some other preventive measure.
Dale Citron, director of major gifts for the Washington CCFA chapter, decided that the best way to bring this idea to people who could help advance the study was by organizing what her group is calling “Crohn’s Disease and the Jewish Connection Day.”
Citron’s son has Crohn’s, and she said that in her work to find a cure for the disease she feels a sense of holy mission. “God put me in this job because I am supposed to find these 10,000 Jews. I am certain of this,” she said. CCFA provided the seed money for John Hopkins Crohn’s research, but now the study is being subsidized by the National Institutes of Health. Unfortunately, she said, “you don’t get funding to find participants, only to do research.”
“It floors me that the Jewish community hasn’t embraced this disease and taken ownership of it,” Citron added.
Citron hopes that “Crohn’s Disease and the Jewish Connection Day” will be a prototype for other such events around the country.
At the event, scheduled for April 30, 2006, Dr. Steven Brant, one of the lead researchers on Crohn’s at John Hopkins, will speak about his study and the disease’s incidence among Ashkenazic Jews. Participants will fill out surveys, and samples will be collected from them.
“This is definitely a religious experience for me,” Citron said about her involvement. “I am speaking from my heart.”