Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which comprises ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, disables almost 119,000 people each year in the U.S. They’re painful diseases that sooner or later, don’t respond to medications, forcing a patient to undergo surgery. In a statement on Tuesday, DNA testing company 23andMe announced that it would be partnering with pharmaceutical company Pfizer to gain a better understanding of the genetic influence behind IBD in an effort to develop new drugs.
The partnership is one of a few steps 23andMe has been taking to remain active in the health care industry since it was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from providing its Personal Genome Service, which interpreted the results of their DNA sequencing tests. The company will now work with Pfizer to complete a study of about 10,000 people who suffer from IBD. The companies will collect at-home testing kits from the 10,000 participants, as well as questionnaires regarding their diseases and symptoms. From these results, they hope to gain insight into IBD’s onset, progression, severity, and response to treatments, according to a press release.
IBD is the umbrella term for all of the aforementioned conditions, as well as any others in which there’s a chronic or recurring immune response in the gastrointestinal tract. These conditions often cause inflammation as the immune system reacts to foods, drinks, bacteria, and other materials that pass through the intestines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the immune system attacks, it causes pain, fever, and severe bleeding in either the rectum or stool. On top of that, IBD also causes occasional skin lesions, joint pain, eye inflammation, and liver disorders.
There is no cure for IBD, so many patients take medications like steroids, immune modifiers, or antibiotics. However, up to 75 percent of Crohn’s patients and 33 percent of ulcerative colitis patients eventually stop responding to medications. Surgery (removing the colon), although helpful for ulcerative colitis, doesn’t always work for Crohn’s, which can reemerge.
IBD is really kind of an all-around mystery; no one is sure exactly how it is triggered. Although some clues indicate diet and stress, the “greatest relative risk” of getting the disease, according to the CDC, “is found among first degree relatives.” For this reason, Pfizer is interested in studying the disease with 23andMe.
“Pfizer is committed to bringing forward new treatments for patients suffering with IBD,” said Jose Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, senior vice president of biotherapeutics research and development at Pfizer, in the release. “By enhancing our understanding of the underlying biology of the disease, we hope to better support our clinical research activities and development programs.”