Bacteria Studies Give New Hope to IBD Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study is adding to the growing body of evidence linking gut bacteria to autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases – research that could lead to new and more effective treatments.

Researchers at the University of Utah used animal studies to show that a certain type of yeast can aggravate symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Their findings, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, also suggest that allopurinol, a generic drug already on the market, could offer some relief.

IBD is an autoimmune disease characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, causing diarrhea, pain, fatigue and weight loss.

For years doctors have used the presence of yeast antibodies, specifically antibodies in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to differentiate between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, two variations of IBD. But it was unclear the role that yeast played in relation to IBD.

“To me this was a huge hole in our understanding of the role of yeast in IBD and our health,” said June Round, PhD, an associate professor in pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Round and her research team studied two types of yeast that are common in healthy people and IBD patients. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also called Baker’s yeast, is a prominent organism in the environment and in our food. Rhodotorula aurantiaca is also commonly found in the environment, as well as milk and fruit juice.

Scientists gave each type of yeast to laboratory mice that had been treated with chemicals to induce IBD-like symptoms. The symptoms worsened in mice fed S. cerevisiae, but not in those fed R aurantiaca.

“The mice fed S. cerevisiae experienced significant weight loss, diarrhea, bloody stool, just like a person with IBD,” said Tyson Chiaro, graduate student in Round’s lab.

Further study revealed that the mice fed S. cerevisiae had a higher concentration of nitrogen-rich compounds, called purines, than the mice fed R. aurantiaca. Unlike other yeasts, S. cerevisiae cannot break down purines that accumulate in the intestinal tract and produce uric acid. Uric acid exacerbates inflammation, which may worsen IBD symptoms.

When the mice were treated with allopurinol, a medication used to block the production of uric acid in gout patients, the drug significantly reduced their intestinal inflammation.

“Our work suggests that if we can block the mechanism leading to the production of uric acid, perhaps with allopurinol, IBD patients with a high concentration of S. cerevisiae antibodies may have a new treatment option to reduce inflammation, which could allow the intestine time to heal,” said Round.

E. Coli linked to IBD and spondyloarthritis

Another recent study has helped researchers identify E. coli bacteria found in people with Crohn's disease that can trigger inflammation associated with spondyloarthritis, a painful arthritic condition that affects the spine and joints.

Researchers used fecal samples from IBD patients to identify bacteria in the gut that were coated with antibodies called immunoglobulin-A (IgA) that fight infection. Using flow cytometry, in which fluorescent probes are used to detect IgA-coated bacteria, the researchers found the E. coli bacteria were abundant in fecal samples from patients with both Crohn's disease and spondyloarthritis.

"Our findings may allow us to develop diagnostic tools to stratify Crohn's patients with spondyloarthritis symptoms as well as patients at risk," said senior author Dr. Randy Longman, an assistant professor of medicine and director of the Jill Roberts Institute Longman Lab at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Longman and his research team found that patients with Crohn's disease and spondyloarthritis had high levels of Th17 cells, which help fight inflammation. The finding may help physicians select therapies that target inflammation in both the bowels and the joints.

"We knew there was smoke but we didn't know where the fire was," said Dr. Kenneth Simpson, a professor of small animal medicine at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine. "If we can block the ability of bacteria to induce inflammation, we may be able to kick Crohn's disease and spondyloarthritis into remission."

The study findings are also published in Science Translational Medicine

New Molecules May Combat Immune System Disease

By Pat Anson, Editor

A team of international researchers may have unlocked an ancient secret in the human immune system that could lead to new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

"Innate immunity is so old it goes all the way down to frogs, fish and even insects," says Professor Matt Cooper of the University of Queensland’s Institute of Molecular Bioscience.

Cooper and colleagues at Kings College London and the U. S. National Institutes of Health say the human immune system is basically comprised of two parts: the adaptive immune system, which produces antibodies against infection, and a very ancient pathway, known as the innate immune system.

"It stops us getting infections, but it also drives a lot of inflammatory diseases,” explains Cooper.  "So, in one case it's keeping us alive by stopping the bugs getting us, but if it goes wrong, we start to get diseases like arthritis, multiple sclerosis and IBDs such as colitis.

"Researchers always thought key components of these pathways acted alone, but our teams have discovered they can communicate and work together."

IBD is a chronic and painful inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Inflammation affects the entire digestive tract in Crohn’s disease, but only the large intestine in ulcerative colitis.

The study findings, published in the journal Science, may have significant implications for treating millions of people who suffer from inflammatory diseases.

"Inflammation in diseases such as colitis occurs when the immune system is activated inappropriately, and causes symptoms including pain, diarrhea, fever and weight loss," said Cooper. "Current treatments are not always effective, possibly because they are only blocking one of the key pathways and inflammation still occurs through the other pathway."

Researchers have developed two small molecules that each block one pathway.

activated immune cells

activated immune cells

"We have tested these molecules and the results show that they both reduce inflammation when administered separately," Cooper said. "This work is still in the early stages but we are hopeful our ongoing research will lead to more effective treatments for the millions of IBD sufferers.

"It may give other scientists opportunities to develop new drugs against these diseases."

A healthy immune system is activated when the body recognizes invading microbes and alerts immune cells, such as T cells. Disease begins when the immune response spirals out of control and begins attacking healthy tissue.  

Researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center are also working on a theory known as the "hygiene hypothesis" that may explain why there is an increase in inflammatory bowel disease worldwide. They believe intestinal parasites and bacteria that humans were long exposed to are beneficial and help balance the immune system.

Sanitary practices have sharply reduced these parasitic and bacterial infections in developed nations, which now have some of the highest rates of Crohn’s and colitis. Researchers believe the immune response to infections triggers the growth of Clostridia, a bacterium known to counter inflammation.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Linked to Overdoses

Pat Anson, Editor

A drug that’s long been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases has been linked to dozens of deaths in the U.S. and Australia, mainly because patients have taken it daily rather than the recommended weekly dose, according to a new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Methotrexate was originally developed and is still used for chemotherapy because of its ability to stop the growth and spread of tumors. Because it is also effective as an immune system inhibitor, low doses of methotrexate became a front line therapy for rheumatoid arthritis in the 1950’s. It is also used to treat psoriasis, lupus, sarcoidosis, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s.

Researchers say methotrexate is safe when taken once or twice a week, but the drug is so potent that accidental daily dosing can be lethal.

“The unusual dosing schedule of low dose methotrexate is associated with a risk that it will be prescribed, dispensed or administered daily instead of weekly,” said lead author Rose Cairns, PhD, of the NSW Poisons Information Centre in Australia.

“Used appropriately, methotrexate is considered safe and efficacious; accidental daily dosing, however, can potentially be lethal. Higher or more frequent doses can result in gastro-intestinal mucosal ulceration, hepatotoxicity, myelosuppression, sepsis and death.”

In a review of medication errors in Australia from 2004 to 2014, researchers linked methotrexate to 22 deaths, including seven cases in which erroneous daily dosing was documented. One patient took methotrexate for 10 consecutive days. Reasons for the errors included patient misunderstanding and incorrect packaging of the drug by pharmacists.

A similar study of medication errors in the U.S. over a 4 year period identified over 100 methotrexate dosing errors that resulted in 25 deaths. Over a third (37%) of the errors were attributed to the prescriber, 20% to the patient, 19% to pharmacists, and 18% to administration by a health care professional.

The researchers also found a “worrying increase” in the number of medication errors just in the past year.

“It is difficult to explain this increase, but the risk of methotrexate medication error may be increasing as the population ages. Older people may be at increased risk because of a range of problems that includes confusion, memory difficulties, and age-related decline in visual acuity,” said Cairns.

Cairns and her colleagues say more needs to be done by drug makers and health professionals to reduce the risk of methotrexate overdosing, such as clearer labeling, smaller sized packages, and distinctly colored tablets.

"Methotrexate use is likely to continue increasing as Australia's population ages, so that additional measures are needed to prevent these errors," the authors concluded.

Sherri’s Story: A Final Plea for Help

By Pat Anson, Editor

“I’ve been thinking about ending my life if I don’t get the help I need.”

Those are chilling words for anyone to hear. And in the last two years of her life, Sherri Little said them often to family, friends and doctors.  After decades of struggling with chronic pain from fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, severe colitis and other conditions, the 53-year old California woman was desperate and depressed when she checked into the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on July 3, 2015.

What happened over the next four days is not entirely clear, but we know that Sherri took her own life. Her body was found in the bathtub of a hotel room across the street from Cedars-Sinai on the morning of July 7, with several prescription bottles and an empty bottle of wine nearby. Sherri had been sober for many years.

“I attest this is the first drink of alcohol in 16 years -- just to give me the courage to end my life alone,” Sherri wrote in a suicide note found in her hotel room.

“Several documents found inside the location underscored her pain, suffering and suicidal ideations,” reads the coroner’s report. “A check of the decedent’s laptop also contained a pictured document written by the decedent titled ‘Why I Killed Myself’ by Sherri Little.”

We’re telling Sherri’s story --- with the help of her mother, friends and patient advocate – not in a ghoulish attempt to recreate her final days, but to lend a name, a face and a voice to the untold number of chronic pain sufferers who have also been overwhelmed by pain, depression and loss of hope.  Like Sherri, many felt abandoned by a healthcare system that was unwilling or simply unable to treat them.

sherri little

sherri little

Over 42,000 Americans killed themselves in 2014 according to the CDC, but experts believe the actual number is higher. Many suicides go unreported or are misclassified as accidental, covered up by grieving family members or accommodating medical examiners.

Sherri’s death was no accident, but it’s taken several months for her mother to come to terms with it.

“I’ve got to get her story out there,” said Lynda Mannion, Sherri’s mother. “She got to the point in the last year or so she could hardly eat solid food at all. She was just drinking her nutrition. I guess she must have lost 20 to 30 pounds in the last year.

“She would say, ‘I can’t go on living like this. If I can’t get some help, if somebody doesn’t believe me, I just can’t go on living like this.’ She didn’t seem to be extremely afraid of dying, considering the alternative, living with the pain she was in. But I never expected her to do it.”

A few months before she died, Sherri gave an interview to Tina Petrova in Toronto for a soon-to-be released documentary called Pandemic of Denial. 

“Sherri Little and I first became friends on Facebook, united by our common passion of pain patient advocacy. She initially reached out to me after hearing that I had a film in development I was producing on chronic pain and said, ‘Do I have a story for you!’ And indeed, she did,” says Petrova.

In this short clip, Sherri doesn’t talk about suicide and appears hopeful about her future.

But just weeks later, Sherri wrote the following in an email to Petrova:

“I was acutely suicidal last night after being verbally abused by a doctor who can't even get me any pain relief anymore,” said Sherri. “In a last ditch effort to save my life I am going to Cedar Sinai ER in LA with my patient advocate.”

Sherri was referring to Lisa Blackstock, a professional advocate who founded Soul Sherpa to help guide patients through the healthcare system. Blackstock had been a volunteer at Cedars-Sinai for several years and knew her way around one of the most respected hospitals in Los Angeles. 

The day before she went to the hospital, Sherri was still having suicidal thoughts.

“I woke at 3am today, ready to give up the fight and end my life. This is not dramatic or blaming of you, but just a statement of fact: my life has not been worth living for 2 years,” Sherri wrote in an email to Blackstock.

The two women went to Cedars-Sinai together and were in the emergency room for 11 hours before Sherri was finally admitted as a patient with severe abdominal pain on the evening of July 3rd.

Over the next two days, Sherri was examined by doctors and a psychiatrist, who concluded she was a “moderate” suicide risk because she had never actually tried to take her own life.

“Patient is at moderate risk of harm to self, but does not meet criteria for involuntary psychiatric treatment at this time,” the psychiatrist wrote in Sherri’s medical records, which were provided to Pain News Network by her mother.

cedars-sinai medical center

cedars-sinai medical center

Sherri was scheduled for a colonoscopy on July 6, but never had the procedure.  For reasons that are not clear, she became frustrated with her treatment and left the hospital the night before.

“She left against medical advice,” Sherri’s discharge notes say. “Efforts were made to talk to her about the seriousness of her decision. She explained that she understood but, however, would like to leave against medical advice.”

Lisa Blackstock didn’t learn about Sherri’s release until it was too late.

“Despite a HIPAA release (patient release form) on file naming me as Sherri's contact, the doctor did not contact me and decided there was no reason to place her on a 72-hour involuntary hold,” Blackstock wrote in a letter to the coroner’s investigator. “Sherri was allowed to leave the hospital, in pain and suicidal, and the physicians responsible for her care failed miserably.

“I am a long-term volunteer at Cedars, and, until this incident, had great respect for them.  Changes in healthcare law have resulted in substandard care for many patients depending upon their insurance coverage types, as well as hospital administrators dictating care for patients rather than skilled physicians.”

A spokeswoman for Cedars-Sinai said the hospital was unable to comment and wouldn’t even confirm Sherri had been a patient there.

“State and federal privacy laws prevent hospitals from releasing information about patients without their consent, including whether an individual may or may not be a current or former patient,” wrote Sally Stewart in an email to PNN.

Cocktail of Medications

Long before she was admitted to Cedars-Sinai, Sherri was prescribed a potent cocktail of medications for her pain and depression; including the opioids tramadol and hydrocodone, as well as Lyrica (pregabalin), Ambien (zolpidem), and Klonopin (clonazepam).    

Lyrica, Ambien and Klonopin have all been linked to increased risk of suicide.  

Lyrica has an FDA warning label that states the drug “may cause suicidal thoughts or actions” and Ambien’s label warns that “depression or suicidal thinking may occur.”

Klonopin belongs to a class of sedatives known as benzodiazepines, which are increasingly being linked to overdoses, especially when combined with opioids. Klonopin’s label also warns of “suicidal behavior and ideation.”

Why were doctors prescribing these drugs to someone who was suicidal? And why did Cedars-Sinai release Sherri with the drugs in her possession?

“They discharged her with all of them at Cedars, which I found just incredibly irresponsible,” says Blackstock.

According to the autopsy report, the coroner found only trace amounts of opioids and Ambien in Sherri’s system, but apparently never looked for the other drugs. Her official cause of death is listed vaguely as “combined effects of medications.”

Were the same drugs that Sherri took for her pain and depression – which were ineffective in helping either – used as instruments in her death? 

We may never know the answer.

“I have fought to get help for the disease I am dying of – pseudomembranous colitis – for years without help from anyone,” Sherri wrote in her suicide note. “I do not want to be resuscitated. There is nothing left for me but to be tied to a hospital bed in great pain.” 

Sherri was divorced and did not have any children. But a close circle of friends and loved ones are anxious to have her story told and her memory preserved.

“She was beautiful from the time she was little. She was beautiful up to the day she died.  She looked 20 years younger than she was,” recalls Sherri’s mother, Lynda.

“She loved to help people. She wanted to help people and she couldn’t understand why nobody would help her. She would have been there for anybody.”

“Sherri was one of those rare people that could light up the room upon entering,” recalls her friend, Tina Petrova. “During the all too short time I knew Sherri, her key focus above all was advocating for pain patients, speaking up, getting involved. Her search for treatments for her own painful conditions took a back seat to her passion to help others.

“I can just see her high above us saying, “But you have to DO SOMETHING!’”

Sherri’s advocacy will continue, thanks to a website Petrova created to honor Sherri's memory and the documentary that she’s producing on chronic pain in North America.

What can the rest of us learn from Sherri’s struggle?

Perhaps those lessons are best learned through her own words -- and the advice that Sherri gave to other pain sufferers: