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09 May 2019

King's researchers secure £1.42 million to investigate links between food additives and Crohn's disease

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has awarded $1.82 million (£1.42 million) to researchers in the School of Life Course Sciences to investigate the effect of dietary food additives in Crohn’s disease.

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Image of food

Crohn’s disease is a lifelong condition that causes chronic inflammation of the gut. It is widespread and affects at least 115,000 people in the United Kingdom, more than one million people in the United States and millions more worldwide.

Crohn’s disease can be painful and debilitating. Symptoms include diarrhoea, stomach cramps, fatigue and weight loss. The disease can start at any age, but usually appears for the first time between 10 and 40 years old, a crucial period in young peoples’ lives.

Over 70% of people with Crohn’s disease report that diet affects their disease and yet diet is not routinely included as a potential treatment option. Research into dietary changes such as having more fruit and vegetables, or less fatty food has so far failed to improve disease prevention or management.

Leading nutrition researchers in the School of Life Course Sciences believe there may be a new unsuspected dietary culprit: food additives. Professor Kevin Whelan and his team, in conjunction with researchers at Queen Mary University of London, will study food additives to better understand their links to Crohn’s disease with the aim of identifying a new, safe and low-cost dietary treatment.

I am delighted that Helmsley has chosen to support our research. Observational studies show that food additives are linked – in some way – to the inflammation in Crohn’s disease. Our research will be the first placebo-controlled clinical trial of its type and will generate the data we need to understand the effect food additives are having in the gut and most importantly whether changing what you eat can improve symptoms for people with Crohn’s disease.

Professor Kevin Whelan, Head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences, and the Principal Investigator on the study

Helmsley’s Crohn’s Disease Program is leaving no stone unturned in our search for better treatments and, ultimately, a cure. We know that diet plays a key role in Crohn’s disease. King’s College London’s efforts to conduct a randomized controlled clinical trial and assess the role of food additives in regulating the disease course will yield important insights that could help prevent flares and delay disease progression. This study aligns with Helmsley’s mission to advance precision medicine and personalized care for improving the lives of Crohn’s disease patients

Dr Garabet Yeretssian, Director of the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Crohn’s Disease Program

The team think that food additives cause changes to the bacteria in the gut, which may trigger the activation of genes that regulate intestinal inflammation. The trial, therefore, will not only monitor patients’ symptoms but will include analysis of the types of bacteria present (microbiome sequencing) and what they are doing (microbiome transcriptomics) as well as an examination of the gut immune cell signalling.

This is a real win for patients and for the field of nutrition, which was previously dismissed as having no role in Crohn’s disease. Starting April 2019, we will recruit study participants from five sites across London: Barts Health, Guy’s and St Thomas’, St Mark’s Hospital, University College Hospital and Royal Free Hospital. People with Crohn’s disease who would like to be involved in this study should ask gastroenterologists at these hospitals for further information.

Dr Megan Rossi, Research Fellow, in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Co-Investigator on this study

This is fantastic news and a real testament to the fantastic work Professor Whelan; Dr Rossi and their colleagues are doing at King’s. It also shows that the UK is a real centre for world-leading dietetic research. This study could make a huge difference in the lives of many people in the UK and around the globe who suffer from the effects of Crohn’s disease.

Sue Kellie, British Dietetic Association Deputy Chief Executive