You’re probably a little inflamed right now. Maybe you have a small abrasion on your skin, or a more intense inflammation of your intestines after eating something you don’t digest well, or an aggravated chronic condition that affects your quality of life.
Aggressive inflammation has emerged as a surprising root cause of many diseases. In worst-case scenarios, runaway inflammation can create disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—which is now considered a global disease—and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), plaguing 1,000,000 American women each year. Inflammatory diseases account for a notable portion of chronic diseases, which are responsible for 7 out of every 10 deaths and consume 86 percent of healthcare resources. Moreover, many chronic diseases appear to have an inflammatory component.
Inflammation can also be the byproduct of disease, creating swelling, pain, the breakdown of joints or tissues, and even delirium in older patients after surgery or serious injury. Inflammation runs rampant in autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease—whose cases in the U.S. have quadrupled since the 1950s—and rheumatoid arthritis. There’s even new research to suggest that depression may be an inflammatory condition. One study found a strong link between chronic psychological stress and the body losing its ability to regulate stress hormones.
Fortunately, medical researchers have been working on radical new treatments that hold promise for treating inflammation, big and small. Here are five of them.
1. Marvel Molecule May Halt Disease Progression
The most exciting breakthrough in treating inflammatory disease is the tiniest: Dubbed the “marvel molecule,” MCC950 holds universes of possibility. Developed by Pfizer more than 20 years ago—and then abandoned by the pharmaceutical company before it could go to market—the molecule was revisited by Trinity College Dublin's Biomedical Sciences Institute beginning about eight years ago. Trinity biochemist Luke O'Neill discovered that in mice, it can block the NLRP3 inflammasome, one of the molecules that amplifies inflammation in the body.
O'Neill subsequently carried out trials on mice and found that the molecule stopped the progression of multiple sclerosis and sepsis. It was equally effective on samples taken from people with Muckle-Wells syndrome, a rare auto-inflammatory disorder. Treatments made from MCC950 could be used for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, atherosclerosis, gout, and asthma. Taken orally, it would be cheaper to manufacture than the current protein-based treatments, which are given by injection. Human trials will soon begin.
2. Bone Marrow Transplants for Crohn's Disease
Most of the time, bone marrow transplants are reserved for cancer patients, but George McDonald and George Georges at Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division pioneered the Crohn’s Allogenic Transplant Study to use bone marrow transplants to treat Crohn's disease. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition. For the 5 million people globally who suffer from it, the disease can be debilitating, leading to a greatly diminished quality of life and potentially deadly infections. Remarkably, the patients who received bone marrow transplants have seen their Crohn’s go into remission. Although the treatment is in the early stages of development and there have been occasional relapses, the results may open a new realm of treatment for this terrible inflammatory disease.
3. Bioelectronic Stimulation to Control Inflammation
Our cyborg future may already be here. The installation of tiny electronic devices in your body shows promise in treating inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and potentially even Alzheimer’s. The devices work by neuromodulating, or stimulating, the vagus nerve, the key nerve bundle in the central nervous system’s inflammatory reflex. In certain inflammatory conditions, not all vagus nerve fibers receive information from the nervous system, thus allowing the release of too many inflammation-producing cytokines into the body. Greater stimulation, via electronic device, activates all fibers of the vagus nerve, thus putting it back in control of inflammation. Kevin Tracey, the neurosurgeon who discovered this link, has co-founded SetPoint Medical, the first company of its kind to research and manufacture these devices.
4. Treating Depression with Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
It might just be possible that your "blues" have less to do with your emotional state than what’s happening in your body. A recent longitudinal study found that children suffering from depression had higher numbers of cytokines and interleukin—the molecules the body releases in response to infection and illness. In other words, depression may be an inflammatory condition. New treatments are underway that would use anti-inflammatory drugs, rather than antidepressants, to treat depression, which the CDC says affects about 8 percent of Americans 12 and over.
5. Regulating the Gut Microbiome With Probiotics to Treat Mood and Fatigue from Inflammatory Diseases
As if inflammation of the digestive tract or joints isn’t painful enough, such as with chronic diseases inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms often also include fatigue, depression, and social withdrawal. A study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that when researchers at the University of Calgary treated mice with liver inflammation with probiotics, they became less fatigued and more social. The implication in humans is that the gut microbiome can be influenced to support immunity and ameliorate symptoms to improve more than just the physical health of the patient.