Hannah Morton, a doctoral candidate in the College of Health, is undertaking the research in a bid to find out if environmental factors such as diet, and a specific bacteria found in New Zealand, have a part to play in the disease incidence.
“New Zealand has one of the highest prevalences of Inflammatory Bowel Disease worldwide, making it an ideal location to research the condition,” she says. About 15,000 people in New Zealand are affected by the condition, according to the Ministry of Health.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease covers a group of conditions in which the gastrointestinal tract becomes inflamed. The major types of the disease are Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis, which are both chronic and currently incurable.
While the cause is so far undetermined, researchers think an agent or a combination of agents – bacteria, viruses, antigens – triggers the body’s immune system to produce a severe inflammatory reaction in the gastrointestinal tract.
Rates of the debilitating condition are increasing, with more younger people – even preschoolers – being diagnosed. “The rate is increasing fastest in Western countries,” says Ms Morton.
Symptoms, depending on the disease severity, include abdominal cramps and pain, diarrhoea that may be bloody, severe urgency to have a bowel movement, fever, weight loss, loss of appetite, and iron deficiency anemia due to blood loss. Over half of those diagnosed will undergo surgery.
Ms Morton has over 300 participants so far and is keen for more. She wants those with a confirmed diagnosis as well as participants who do not have IBD. In the initial phase of her study she investigated possible links to Vitamin D levels among participants. Vitamin D status, which is associated with immune function and is typically quite low in New Zealand, is a possible factor in disease incidence, she says.
Although there is currently no cure, many with the condition can improve their symptoms by modifying their diet. This can be difficult, says Ms Morton, because the range of foods people react to varies hugely, with some people benefitting by cutting out highly processed foods while others find they have to eliminate healthy foods high in fibre such as particular fruits and vegetables.
She is motivated to do the study because of her fascination with the disease process. “It’s a very interesting topic because so little is known about it”. She is working under the supervision of Associate Professors Jane Coad and Kevin Pedley, and the study is supported by Crohn’s and Colitis New Zealand.
To find out more about the study, or to register your interest, click here.