December 9, 2005

Inflammatory bowel diseases research leads to national award for VUMC fellow

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Brannon Alberty, M.D.

Inflammatory bowel diseases research leads to national award for VUMC fellow

Brannon Alberty, M.D., a third-year fellow in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, recently received a career development award to support inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) research.

The award — the Fellow to Faculty Transition Award in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases from the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition – Children's Digestive Health and Nutrition Foundation/Centocor (NASPGHAN-CDHNF/Centocor) — provides $75,000 salary support to help young physicians prepare for independent research careers in IBD.

The award allows the fellow to spend an additional year after the completion of fellowship training in full-time research and patient care related to pediatric Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Under the guidance of James E. Crowe, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Alberty will spend the extra year investigating the possible causes of Crohn's disease in children.

Crohn's disease, an inflammatory disease of the small intestine, causes frequent diarrhea and chronic abdominal pain.

More than 1 million people in the United States suffer from Crohn's disease, including a growing number of children.

“With a gut full of bacteria, it's amazing that we don't have intestinal inflammation constantly,” Alberty said. “But we have a regulatory system that normally keeps that in check.”

Although the specific causes of Crohn's disease are unknown, the disease likely involves an abnormality in this regulatory system, causing the body's immune system to attack its own intestinal tissue.

Special immune cells that control this inflammation, called regulatory T-lymphocytes, express molecules that help guide them to the site of inflammation. The inability of these helpful immune cells to get to the proper site could be an important factor in the disease.

Alberty is studying two of these 'gut-homing' molecules in blood and tissue biopsies of children with Crohn's.

He will determine whether the regulatory T-cells of children with Crohn's disease have fewer gut-homing molecules than those of healthy children.

Alberty hopes that the research will provide new insights into the potential causes of this disease and help guide the development of future drugs for Crohn's.

The program awards only one grant per year, making competition for the funding intense.

“It was encouraging that someone else thought that this work was important and that Vanderbilt was a good place to do it,” Alberty said.

“Brannon has combined basic science laboratory experience with clinical investigation to develop a truly translational research project…that will link concepts developed in the laboratory to practical applications from diagnosis to predicting and following response to therapy,” said D. Brent Polk, M.D., chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition and Alberty's mentor.

“We are very proud of the work he has done and the promise of these studies, as acknowledged by the receipt of this award.”

Alberty is a graduate of Louisiana State University School of Medicine in Shreveport and completed residency training in internal medicine/pediatrics at the University of Kentucky in Lexington before coming to Vanderbilt in 2003.