Researchers from the University of Leeds have modified one of the trillions of bacteria that inhabit the human gut so that it will produce human growth factors which help repair the layer of cells lining the intestine, thus reducing the inflammation seen in Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
By adapting the bacterium so that it only activates in the presence of a specific plant sugar called xylan, the patient is given control over his or her own treatment. They are able to switch the bacteria on and off, as necessary, by eating or not eating larger amounts of the sugar.
Whilst this treatment has so far only been tested in the laboratory, the researchers plan to conduct clinical trials in humans soon. They are already looking at the possibility of using the same technique for colorectal cancer, as they believe they could modify the bacterium to produce factors that will reduce tumour growth.
Treatment of diseases elsewhere in the body might also be possible using the same technique, as most substances present in the gut can be absorbed into the blood stream.
Perhaps this new form of treatment may prove an effective means of avoiding the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs.
First Published in April 2007
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