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A gut reaction that’s creating opportunities

At a glance
The challenge

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has no known cause or cure

The solution

Special dietary fats used to treat IBD

The outcome

Successful relief of patient symptoms

What's next?

Investigating avenues to commercialise and test against other bowel diseases

Sometimes a person’s gut reaction to something can change his or her life. But to scientists at the University of Alberta, the way the guts of patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) are reacting to an experimental treatment could change the lives of those suffering — and others.

Thanks to a Mitacs Accelerate partnership with industry, researchers have discovered how a type of dietary fat can provide relief for this disease, and create business opportunities for the treatment of other conditions.

John Miklavcic was working on his PhD at the university’s Alberta Institute for Human Nutrition when he began an Accelerate internship with Biolipids Inc. The goal was to look into whether gangliosides — special kinds of dietary fat that help prevent infection and regulate the immune system — could be used to treat IBD.

The exact cause of IBD isn’t known,” says John, “but we had a hunch that patients with this condition had fewer gangliosides in their intestinal cells than healthy people. Our tests on tissue samples proved we were right. In fact, we were among the first to discover this in live humans. Next we had to find out why.”

The team predicted patients with IBD might have higher levels of enzymes that naturally break down gangliosides. Testing confirmed IBD patients had significantly more of these enzymes than healthy people.

“That led us to propose that patients might improve if they took supplemental gangliosides,” says John.John Miklavcic, University of Alberta

Months of testing showed the treatment successfully relieved some of the patients’ symptoms. “They felt better, they had more energy, and they were able to go out and socialize more,” says John. “We also found the integrity of their guts was better after they’d taken the additional gangliosides.”

He says the discovery has implications for the treatment of other diseases related to low levels of gangliosides.

“I’ve been liaising with Biolipids to create a business proposal for larger-scale testing. From there, they could get support from bigger companies for more research, leading to more business opportunities.”

John credits Accelerate for giving the team financial flexibility, aiding its success. “When a grad student comes into a project with Mitacs funding already in place to cover part of his or her salary, that leaves more money to apply to other areas so researchers can do more.”

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence's Industrial Research and Development Internship Program, the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, along with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, the Government of  British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of  New Brunswick, the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland & Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of  Saskatchewan for their support of Mitacs Accelerate.