Microbial Labor – Treating IBD Using Bacteria

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Abdominal Pain. Weight loss. Persistent diarrhea. Rectal bleeding. Fatigue. No good news ever starts with this set of words. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), broadly classifiable into two variants – Crohn’s Disease (CD) and Ulcerative Colitis (UC) – is a debilitating and chronic disease that has no known prevention or medical cure. While not fatal, once afflicted, IBD calls for a radical change in a person’s lifestyle to manage the symptoms. Additionally, the stigma associated with the symptoms often result in dangerous levels of depression and anxiety that exacerbate the overall reduction in quality of life for patients. Treatment for IBD – specifically UC – involves invasive surgery which can cure the condition. The other variant, CD, unfortunately is incurable with surgery resulting in recurrence of the disease.

Neel Joshi
Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

There is hope, however. “Being mindful of the magnitude of the disease, Tantu’s lab initiated research with an idea to find a well-rounded solution for an IBD patient,” says Neel Joshi, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern, and lead investigator at Tantu Therapeutics. Through their efforts, Neel Joshi and his team of student researchers give those who suffer from IBD good news to anticipate. “It is a persistent long-term disease that can be diagnosed at any point in one’s life,” Joshi says in description of IBD. He adds, “Types of IBD include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis which have different presentations in terms of how they affect the GI tract.”

Prevalence and Pathology

A 2015 study found that an estimated 3 million adults in the US were diagnosed with IBD[1]. In 2017, there were estimated to be 6.8 million cases around the world[2]. These figures, not including children below 18 years of age, show no sign of trending downward as of 2021. With bouts of remission, IBD relapses chronically in an individual and peaks between the age of 10 and 40[3]. Various techniques in surgical, medical, nutritional, microbial and even alternative treatment show heterogeneity in the search for a solution, apart from surgery for UC. Stem cell research in the field is admittedly rather promising, although it is something of a Faustian bargain; excessive cost and indeterminate effect characterization make it a poor candidate for clinical use.

Safe Treatment

Patients are often concerned about surgical treatment owing to the complexity and risks associated with going under the knife. For a disease so enervating, the choice to get treatment is painfully difficult to make. The latest research at Tantu Therapeutics breaks down the barriers to effective treatment.

Neel Joshi
Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Tantu Therapeutics’ research has culminated in the innovative development of microbe-based targeted therapeutic protein fibers. Expressed through a live bacterium engineered in their lab, this technique delivers the treatment locally to the site of the lesions in the intestine. As opposed to surgery that calls for a colectomy or bowel resection, Tantu’s orally administered treatment minimizes the occurrence of post-surgical digestive complications and reduces the recovery time. This treatment results in quicker mucosal healing, better gut barrier functioning and extends the remission period in most patients

In recognition of their remarkable research and innovation to develop novel therapeutic solutions targeting the treatment of IBD, the Center for Research Innovation at Northeastern University recently announced Tantu Therapeutics as a Spark Fund awardee which will see the group receive up to $250k in funding.

Additional Work

Tantu Therapeutics’ work in treating IBD has led to potential solutions in treating other gastrointestinal infections as well. As a case in point, according to a World Health Organization report in 2015, children under age 5 constitute more than 30% of deaths from foodborne illnesses worldwide despite only accounting for 9% of the population.[4] The Americas, one of the regions least beset by foodborne diseases, are home to 31 million under the age of 5 who fall ill from contaminated food.[5]

Joshi points out the high infant mortality rate in low-income countries and its tendency to be “flown under the radar,” citing this as the impetus for Tantu’s new project that addresses a prevalent social concern. Similarly to their treatment of IBD, Tantu Therapeutics now aims to create a pill comprised of live bacteria to be consumed daily. The pill would presumably protect its taker from pathogenic bacteria and could potentially save millions of lives around the world.

“Offering a stable lifestyle to millions of IBD patients is a big picture possibility that we are actively seeking. However, one thing we are sure of is that the research finding furthers our understanding towards the disease to establish a reliable solution,” says Neel Joshi in conclusion.


Written by Vijay Harisudan Sivasekar

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/ibd/data-statistics.htm
[2] https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-1253(19)30333-4
[3] ibid
[4] https://www.who.int/news/item/03-12-2015-who-s-first-ever-global-estimates-of-foodborne-diseases-find-children-under-5-account-for-almost-one-third-of-deaths
[5] ibid

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