Altering a single protein could help the body protect itself against inflammation and colon cancer, according to a new study. 

The discovery was made by researchers at Virginia Tech in an investigation into the role of a protein – IRAK-M – in both inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and colon cancer.

IRAK-M is a molecule known to be over-expressed in both diseases as well as playing a critical role in inflammation. Inflammation, in turn, is heavily linked with the development and activity of both diseases through an alteration in bacterial populations in the gut. These bacteria have been shown to invade colon tissue if the wall of the large intestine becomes damaged.

Using mouse models for both inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer, the team altered the shape of IRAK-M in each mouse model and measured its effect on inflammation.

Researchers found that a modified version of the protein led to a ‘supercharged’ immune system in each model which resulted in a clearing out of bacteria from the gut. This effect led to a drastic decrease in inflammation in both models, significantly decreasing the growth of both diseases.

“When we tested mice with the altered IRAK-M protein, they had less inflammation overall, and remarkably less cancer,” said Coy Allen, an assistant professor of inflammatory disease in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

The team’s findings suggest that targeting IRAK-M could be a legitimate therapeutic target for both diseases.

However, the next step for the team is to test their findings in human models which they now have the opportunity to do through collaborations with Carilion Clinic and Duke University.

“Ultimately, if we can design therapeutics to target IRAK-M, we think it could be a viable strategy for preventing inflammatory bowel disease and cancer,” said Allen.