Colitis: Emerging Treatment Options
The human digestive tract is very complex, and plays a number of roles in our health, wellness, and even our nutrition. Unfortunately, it is also affected by a number of diseases and adverse health conditions. Colitis is one of those, lumped into the larger group of inflammatory bowel diseases. It is often confused with Crohn’s disease. However, while the two conditions are similar, they are not the same.
What Is Colitis?
Colitis is what is called an inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. According to the Mayo Clinic, it
"causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers (sores) in your digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis affects the innermost lining of your large intestine (colon) and rectum. Symptoms usually develop over time, rather than suddenly."
The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation defines it as,
"a chronic disease of the large intestine, also known as the colon, in which the lining of the colon becomes inflamed and develops tiny open sores, or ulcers, that produce pus and mucous. The combination of inflammation and ulceration can cause abdominal discomfort and frequent emptying of the colon."
What Is the Difference between Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease?
While Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have a number of similarities, they are separate diseases. One of the primary differences is in the scope of the disease in question. Colitis affects only the colon, whereas Crohn’s disease can affect any portion of the wider gastrointestinal tract, including the mouth. Colitis also only affects the lining of the colon, but Crohn’s disease can affect all layers and tissue types within the GI tract.
What Causes Colitis?
The underlying cause of ulcerative colitis is still a mystery, despite the ongoing efforts of medical experts around the world. We do know that it is a type of autoimmune disease, though. In a healthy individual, the immune system attacks only invaders – pathogens and other threats from outside the body.
However, those with colitis have immune systems that have malfunctioned. The immune system thinks that beneficial gut bacteria, food, and even the cells that make up the lining of the colon are threats, and attack them. This causes constant inflammation, and eventually leads to the development of ulcers.
Several factors can make a person more or less likely to develop colitis, as well. One of those is genetics – those who have a family member with colitis are more likely to develop the condition themselves. Environmental factors may also play a role. However, stress and specific food types, while capable of producing symptom flare-ups, do not cause the underlying condition itself.
What Are the Symptoms of Colitis?
It is important to understand that those suffering from colitis can experience a wide range of different symptoms. The type of symptoms and their severity can change depending on how severe the inflammation is. Some of the most common signs of colitis include the following:
- Failure to grow in children
- Bloody or pus-infused diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal cramping
- An urgent need to pass stool
- Rectal bleeding when voiding the bowel
- Rectal pain
- Weight loss
- Fatigue/loss of energy
- Inability to empty bowel
Depending on the symptoms and the location of the inflammation, doctors may classify colitis as a particular type. Some of the most common are acute severe ulcerative colitis, left-sided colitis, proctosigmoiditis and pancolitis.
What Treatments Are Available for Those Suffering from Colitis?
While there is no cure for colitis at this time, there are treatment options, although they range in terms of effectiveness. Anti-inflammatory drugs are usually the first course of treatment, and may include corticosteroids and 5-aminosalcylates. Immune system suppressants may also be used to help alleviate symptoms.
Antibiotics are often used to help treat infection and reduce pus production. Pain relievers may be used to help alleviate discomfort, and anti-diarrheal medications may help to limit diarrhea. Finally, surgery may be necessary to remove the colon and rectum in severe cases. Dietary changes are also necessary to help alleviate symptoms.
How Might Stem Cells Be Used to Treat Colitis?
Stem cells are currently being explored in the US and Canada for their use in treating colitis, Crohn’s disease, and other inflammatory bowel diseases. The European Union has already approved one stem cell treatment specific to Crohn’s disease, with additional studies currently ongoing.
Stem cells are the building blocks of the body, predating all other cell types. Not only can they transform into other cell types, but they can also heal the damage to existing cells. This action is how stem cells are able to reduce inflammation, the underlying cause of colitis and IBDs.
One study, published in the journal Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology, concluded that mesenchymal stem cells
"offer a promising emerging therapy for patients with IBD due to their immunosuppressive properties, ability to migrate to areas of injury, and demonstration of colonic healing in a mouse model."
Crohn’s and Colitis UK reports that Queen Mary’s Hospital is attempting to use stem cells to create new immune systems for those suffering from IBD.
Allogeneic vs. Autologous Stem Cells
A number of clinical trials and medical studies rely on the use of autologous stem cells – those sourced from the patient’s own body. This is problematic because these stem cells have lost much of their youthful energy and ability to heal the body. They have also accreted significant damage over time, which can trigger negative immune system responses.
Allogeneic stem cells sourced from umbilical cord blood and tissue have no such complications. They are youthful, energetic, and free of damage. They are also immune system naïve.
Ultimately, stem cell therapy shows great promise for treating colitis and other IBDs. However, there is as yet no FDA-approved stem cell treatment in the US, and all such treatments should be considered experimental.