A simple blood test could help detect debilitating bowel disease earlier by picking up on changes in people’s DNA, Scottish scientists have discovered.
Researchers at Edinburgh University found chemical changes in the DNA of patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that were not present in healthy people, after analysing samples from 240 people.
These changes could be picked up in blood samples, which would spare patients from undergoing invasive and painful tests for IBD.
Scotland has the highest incidence of IBD in the UK, with more than 26,000 people suffering from conditions including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which cause diarrhoea, stomach pain and extreme fatigue.
Dr Nicholas Ventham, a research fellow at Edinburgh University, said: “The tests we have are not specific to IBD, so one of things we wanted to do was find a way to diagnose more quickly and allow them to get help sooner.
“Endoscopies can be invasive and they come with their own risks, while X-rays carry a radiation risk. We wanted to provide something as simple as a blood test, which carries fewer risks.”
Causes of these conditions are poorly understood, as several genes have been linked to IBD but not everyone who inherits the genes becomes ill.
Scientists said the findings could help explain how factors such as diet and gut bacteria can trigger the diseases.
Results from the test could help doctors to predict how severe a person’s condition is likely to become, so that therapy can be tailored to them.
The results could also reveal clues to a patient’s longer-term prognosis, the team said.
Dr Ventham, who worked on the study published in the Nature Communications journal, said: “The research is focused on picking this up earlier so we can treat it before patients get onto these severe treatment pathways where it really impacts on their lives.”
Treatments for IBD focus on reducing inflammation in the bowel, either through suppressing the immune system or surgery to remove a section of the bowel.
Campaigners said condition costs are comparable to major diseases such as cancer and diabetes, as the Scottish NHS spends £72 million a year on IBD. A major UK audit into patchy care for IBD prompted the Scottish Government to commission the UK’s first blueprint for better treatment earlier this year, including teleconsultations for patients and dedicated IBD nurses.
A spokesperson for the charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK said: “Identifying the specific environmental triggers and genetic factors involved remains the mainstay of research, ultimately advancing knowledge for the benefit of those who live with distressing effects of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
“We welcome any developments into this area, as building knowledge and understanding of genetic research is vital to those with IBD.”