Harnessing microbes to treat gut pain

News / General / Research
By Mary Anne Beaudette

Dr. Alan Lomax, a scientist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre’s gastrointestinal diseases research unit, has been awarded $790,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study how the products of human gut microbes modulate the pain of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.  Canada has the highest rate of IBD in the world.  

This five-year project builds on his group’s discovery of a bacterium resident in the healthy bowel that is capable of suppressing pain.  This bacterium is missing in many patients with IBD, which may remove a brake on the pain that these patients experience. Their research has also shown that other gut microbes from patients with IBD can produce substances that cause pain. 

“A number of studies have showed that this pain-relieving bacterium is absent in patients with IBD,” says Dr. Lomax, who is also an associate professor in the departments of Medicine and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at Queen’s University. “We’ll be looking at what those bacteria are producing, and whether those secretions could be used to relieve pain.”  They will also seek to understand how the changes in microbiota in patients with IBD lead to worsening pain. 

Ultimately the researchers hope to develop a microbe-base treatment for IBD that is a safer and more effective alternative to existing opioid pain medications. 

The study is part of a growing body of research that has linked gut microbes to a number of illnesses including autism, depression, anxiety, diabetes and even cancer. “These bacteria have all sorts of influences around the body,” Dr. Lomax says. “The more we understand about how these microbes affect health, the more we can move towards designing new treatments that target these microbes.