Didier Merlin

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a broad term that describes conditions with chronic and recurring inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Patients with IBD have severe abdominal cramping and diarrhea. The two most common forms of IBD are ulcerative colitis, in which inflammation affects the large intestine, and Crohn’s disease, in which the entire digestive tract is affected.

IBD is a big problem. Over one million adults in the US suffer from IBD. About 50,000 new cases are diagnosed each year (according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America). Compared to the general population, patients within the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System have a roughly 30-fold higher rate of colitis-associated colorectal cancer (National Center for Health Statistics data). Thus, seeking to develop better and more effective treatments will directly benefit the veteran population.

Efforts to develop new drug-based treatments for IBD must overcome several challenges. The drugs must get to the site of the inflammation in the GI tract. They must effectively reduce inflammation specifically in the colon with causing harmful effects elsewhere in the body, and they must be safe and affordable. Dr. Merlin and his colleagues have recently demonstrated that artificially synthesized nanoparticles may be used to target low doses of drugs to specific cells in the body where they are needed most. Nanoparticles are tiny “carriers” that are made in the lab that can be used to deliver agents in the body where they are needed most. Dr. Merlin’s lab has made nanoparticles from natural sources such as ginger. Naturally occurring components of ginger reduce intestinal inflammation in mouse models of colitis and reduce colitis associated colon cancer in mice.

This research program demonstrates that a novel, natural, nontoxic delivery system can target inflamed intestinal tissue and block damaging factors to promote healing. This ginger-derived nanoparticle system can easily be developed for large-scale production and may represent an effective therapeutic strategy for preventing and treating inflammatory bowel disease and colitis-associated colorectal cancer. Ginger-derived nanoparticles could also be used as carriers to deliver other treatments to cells in the intestine. For example, Dr. Merlin’s group recently showed that ginger-derived nanoparticles could be loaded with a chemotherapeutic agent directed at colon cancer. These ‘natural’ nanoparticles overcame undesirable effects of more common synthetic nanoparticles and could serve as next-generation therapeutic delivery systems for the treatment of disease in the GI tract.