University researchers have made a major breakthrough in the fight against bowel diseases such as Crohn's, they have revealed.
Scientists at NUI Maynooth discovered what they described as a crucial role for protein in controlling unwanted inflammation in the intestine.
Professor Paul Moynagh, who led the research team, said the identification of the protein Pellino3 may protect against the development of the incurable Crohn's disease, adding: "My hope is that we can build on these findings and use Pellino3 as a new diagnostic for Crohn's disease and as a target for new drug discovery. Our aim at NUI Maynooth is to progress this research even further and we look forward to further advancements in the area of immunology in years to come."
Prof Moynagh, head of the Department of Biology and Director of the Institute of Immunology at the university, said the research represents a significant breakthrough.
The team discovered that levels of Pellino3 are dramatically reduced in Crohn's disease patients. It will now use the protein as a basis for new diagnostic for Crohn's and as a target in designing drugs to treat the illness.
More than two million people across Europe suffer from some form of inflammatory bowel disease. Inflammation is the body's response to disease-causing micro-organisms, which involves the movement of white blood cells from vessels in the infected tissue where invading micro-organisms are destroyed. But this can result in chronic inflammatory diseases with the symptoms of the diseases being dependent on the inflammation area.
When chronic inflammation occurs in the intestine, this can lead to inflammatory bowel diseases - Crohn's disease is a particularly debilitating strand of this. Some symptoms of the illness include abdominal pain and upset stomachs. Patients are also at an increased risk of developing gallstones.
The findings of the research, which had support from collaborators in Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork, have been accepted and published in the Nature Immunology journal.
NUI Maynooth president Professor Philip Nolan said research is about finding answers and solutions to major challenges.
"Immunology is an area of strength for Ireland and developments such as this will cement our position as one of the world's leading nations in this field," he added. "The findings by Prof Moynagh and his team have the potential to impact positively on many lives."