Crohn's disease disease is characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. This inflammation is thought to be caused by an exaggerated immune response towards normal bowel bacteria. As IBD is a chronic disease, treatment involves tight management of the disease activity and symptoms. Unfortunately, some IBD patients do not respond to existing treatment options and continuously experience severe disease activity. For these patients, frequent hospitalization and repeat surgeries are needed to bring about short term disease control. An alternative treatment option might be stem cell therapy.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells in the body. They have two characteristics that make them different from other cells. First, stem cells are able to self-renew themselves and make new stem cells. Second, they are able to create different daughter cells. Among the various stem cells existing throughout the human body, two types have been applied for the treatment of IBD, namely hematopoietic stem cells and mesenchymal cells. Our research program in stem cell therapy will pioneer alternative treatment options for Crohn's disease.
Hematopoietic stem cells produce all different blood cells including the white blood cells that form the immune system. Because IBD is caused by an exaggerated immune response, replacing the overactive immune system with a new immune system using hematopoietic stem cells could counteract this problem. Previous clinical trials using hematopoietic stem cells for IBD show promising results, but uncertainties still exist regarding long term efficiency and safety. Recently we started a clinical trial at the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases in which IBD patients are treated with their own hematopoietic stem cells. During this trial a research team will work on clarifying the mechanisms involved in this process and develop techniques to make hematopoietic stem cell therapy safer and more effective.
Mesenchymal stem cells are another focus of our research team. Mesenchymal stem cells are connective tissue stem cells that can generate a variety of supportive cell types. Furthermore, they have potent immunosuppressive properties, which can be very beneficial for IBD patients. Treatment of fistulizing Crohn's disease with mesenchymal stem cells has shown favorable results in the latest clinical trials. Our research focus is on establishing safe production of mesenchymal stem cells and further studying the capacity of these cells to suppress the immune system.