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January 11, 2024

Ready for This Moment: Exploring Prevention of Ulcerative Colitis

Adam Lacy-Hulbert, PhD, was reading through the latest scientific papers when one finding stopped him in his tracks: Groups from Kyoto University and Mount Sinai described an autoantibody specific to people with ulcerative colitis (UC). A telltale sign of autoimmune disease, autoantibodies are evidence that the body is making proteins that attack its own tissues. This caught his attention for two reasons. 

“First, the autoantibodies seemed to be attacking a group of proteins called Alpha-V integrins, which I’ve studied for 25 years,” Dr. Lacy-Hulbert says. “And second, the autoantibody was present as much as a decade before people were actually diagnosed with UC.”

He quickly looped in James Lord, MD, PhD, a fellow investigator in BRI’s Gut Immunity Program who is also a gastroenterologist. They started examining samples from BRI’s biorepository, and within days, they found the same autoantibody. This launched new research questions such as: Can we target this autoantibody to stop UC before it starts? 

“This is a brand new line of inquiry, but in some ways, we’re 20 years in,” Dr. Lacy-Hulbert says. “We have excellent lab models. We have a robust library of patient samples that will allow us to jump right in and investigate new questions. We hope this will lead to some really exciting breakthroughs.” 

They’ll start by using a lab model Dr. Lacy-Hulbert built to study Alpha-V integrins to answer a crucial question: Do these autoantibodies cause UC? If they can prove this in a lab, they can then explore medicines that target these autoantibodies to treat or prevent UC in people. Collaborations between lab scientists like Dr. Lacy-Hulbert and physician-scientists like Dr. Lord are crucial to this type of study.

Feature - Gut Immunity Group
Adam Lacy-Hulbert, PhD; James Lord, MD, PhD; and Oliver Harrison, DPhil, lead the Gut Immunity Program at BRI, working to find answers and improve care for people with conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

“We want to better understand how biological processes that start deep within the cells affect people. To do that, we need experts on the cells and experts on the people,” Dr. Lord says. “BRI was built to foster this type of collaboration and it’s a key part of our success.”

What’s even more exciting is that Dr. Lord believes we may not even need a new medicine to prevent UC. 

“An existing treatment for people who already have UC may also work to prevent it,” Dr. Lord says. “And we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel in terms of trials for screening and prevention because BRI already has a framework from similar studies in type 1 diabetes. This could make preventing UC a reality in the near future.”


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