Experts in the field say that inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), an illness often associated with Ashkenazi Jews, is increasing in incidence.
On May 3, Toronto couple Andrea and Elliot Kohn hosted an event at their home to raise funds for the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Centre at the Hospital for Sick Children, and raise awareness about IBD, which has shown to be more common among Ashkenazi Jews than non-Jews living in the same geographic areas.
The event was attended by about 70 people and featured remarks from Dr. Anne Griffiths, a pediatric gastroenterologist and IBD specialist at the Sick Kids IBD Centre and her colleagues Dr. Aleixo Muise, a gastroenterologist and co-director at the centre; Dr. John Brumell, a senior scientist and co-director at the centre, and Dr. Arie Levine, a visiting pediatric gastroenterologist from Israel’s Edith Wolfson Medical Center, who is studying the link between IBD and diet.
The Kohns’ 13-year-old daughter Molly, who’s been a patient at the Sickkids IBD Centre since she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease two years ago, also spoke, conveying the family’s special connection to the cause.
Molly described their struggle to pinpoint the cause of her excruciating stomach pains and, once a diagnosis was reached, to find the best course of treatment.
“She was in so much pain before. She’d be doubled over in pain at meals…now, with the help of Dr. Griffiths, she’s leading a very normal life,” explained Molly’s mom Andrea Kohn.
Following her diagnosis, Molly was given a preliminary treatment plan that involved eliminating food, and drinking three shakes a day. She responded well, and was then given what is called a biologic treatment, which to this day is immensely effective for her.
Speaking with The CJN, Griffiths explained that biologic therapies have been the “breakthrough treatment” for IBD over the past 15 years.
These therapies entail giving the patient certain proteins – either intravenously or by injection – that target and “mop up” some of the inflammatory proteins causing inflammation and injury to the intestines, she said.
Griffiths further explained that IBD, of which the two major types are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s, was originally found only among people in North America and northern Europe, and in higher proportion among Ashkenazi Jews.
However, occurrence of the disease appears to be increasing overall, and has begun to spread to parts of the world where it had never been found previously, such as Japan and Korea.
In addition, it’s becoming more common for IBD to affect people at a younger age, she said.
“It used to be that about a quarter of people who developed IBD would develop it as a child or a teen, but we think that’s increasing… At Sick Kids we’re seeing about 10 to 15 children [affected by the disease] each month,” Griffiths said.
The rising prevalence of IBD demonstrates how important it is to determine the disease’s causes and better prevention tactics, she stressed, noting, “If something is changing in this way there has to be an answer.”
The genetic factor in IBD is apparent, and is a component that specialists have been studying since the late 1990s, Griffiths said. But there is also clearly a “heavy environmental component” at play, and so the thrust of the current research is to understand how environmental factors contribute.
For example, there is renewed interest in the field to ascertain the effect of diet on IBD.
Sick Kids has been collaborating with Levine to look at types of foods that may influence the disease.
“There hasn’t been a dietary or nutritional treatment that’s been highly effective in the long term. A strategy that works nicely requires one to stop all [solid] foods, so it’s not sustainable… Dr. Levine has various theories about ways components of diet may influence the bacteria in the intestines,” said Griffiths.
Addressing the crowd briefly, Levine praised Sick Kids for its large network of IBD specialists and what he said was its “amazing international reputation.”
He noted that he’s optimistic about the deeper understanding among those in the field of the different aspects of the disease.