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Research aims at personalizing inflammatory bowel disease care

April 9, 2024 — 

Dr. Heather Armstrong is at the forefront of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) research and is seeking a more personalized treatment for people living with the chronic disease.

Over the past couple of years, Armstrong, assistant professor of internal medicine at the Max Rady College of Medicine and UM Canada Research Chair in integrative bioscience, and her collaborators have discovered that a more personalized approach should be taken when it comes to diet and IBD, which is a chronic inflammation of tissues in the digestive tract.

Portrait of Dr. Heather Armstrong.

Dr. Heather Armstrong

“Historically, clinical studies have assessed all IBD patients together, treating them as similar,” said Armstrong, who is also a researcher with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. “We can’t expect diet to work the same for everyone, and as our studies and others have shown, there is a need to push towards personalizing these approaches.”

Armstrong received two prestigious awards last year for her research developing and investigating personalized approaches.

She received the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada Women in IBD Emerging Researcher Award and received $15,000 to support her team’s continued progress toward personalized nutritional interventions. The honour acknowledges an outstanding female researcher who has served as an inspirational leader and role model in IBD research.

She also received the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada Rising Star Award recognizing Armstrong as an outstanding, innovative and productive leader, in the early stages of her career in the Canadian gastroenterology field.

“I’m an IBD patient myself, so it means a lot to receive these awards for the work that we’re doing,” Armstrong said. “I hope this shows young women and other persons with IBD that they too can reach their dreams and goals, and that their disease does not define them.”

Armstrong and her team aim to better understand how the gut microbiome and changes in the microbes that live in the gut of IBD patients can impact the way the body interacts with their diet.

“A lot of IBD patients are sensitive to foods that would typically be considered healthy, and some of these foods can even cause serious damage to the gut in these individuals,”  Armstrong said, adding that she’s trying to understand why they’re experiencing sensitivities and how to personalize diet in these patients to make sure they’re still getting a well-rounded, healthy diet, while avoiding the foods that worsen their disease.

“We’re really hoping in the next three to five years to be able to develop and clinically utilize stool tests in these patients to use their gut microbiome as a biomarker to determine what diet will work best for them as an individual,” Armstrong said. “This research is the first step towards that.”

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