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Seeking a Cure for Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are both types of inflammatory bowel diseases. It’s not uncommon for these diseases to be misdiagnosed for many years in patients. Symptoms include persistent diarrhea, bleeding, and cramps.

When Karen Edelblum was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 13, she had three questions for doctors.

Am I going to die?

Is there a cure?

Is this something that gets passed along in families?

No, not today, came the answers to the first two. Very likely, but we don’t know the cause, was the response to her third query.

It took months and a misdiagnosis of leukemia before doctors figured out she had Crohn’s disease.   She took the news hard but wondered if there might be a reason why she had Crohn’s. “I’ve always been more science-minded, so I thought maybe the reason is so I can work on finding a cure,” said the Chancellor Scholar at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Center for Immunity and Inflammation (CII) and assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine.

Edelblum arrived at Rutgers this summer to pursue her research toward a cure, or, at least, a better treatment. A graduate of Emory University who earned her doctorate in cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University, Edelblum’s research has focused on the epithelium – the single layer of cells that lines the gastrointestinal tract and keeps the immune system from being activated by everything passing through the GI system – from graduate school through her postdoc stint at The University of Chicago.

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are chronic inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Crohn’s disease often affects the end of the small bowel, known as the ileum, and beginning of the colon, but it may affect any area of the GI tract. It is different from ulcerative colitis, which only affects the colon, or large intestine.

Symptoms are difficult, depleting and painful, and include persistent diarrhea, bleeding and abdominal cramps. Nearly 700,000 men and women are diagnosed with Crohn’s in the United States, and while it can affect all ages, it typically affects adolescents and young adults. With Crohn’s, the protective layer of the epithelium is compromised, sending the gut’s immune system into overdrive, causing a reoccurring cycle of inflammation and tissue damage.

“This is how I explain what it’s like,” Edelblum said. “If you’ve ever had food poisoning, imagine having it for weeks, months or years of your life, straight. Or the worst stomach flu you’ve ever had. That’s a good representation of Crohn’s disease.”

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