Black tie event helps white coats decode genes’ colors

long DNA

Long DNA sequencing of microbial genes, a crucial tool for understanding the gut microbiome

On Saturday, May 20, the Gastrointestinal Research Foundation (GIRF) held their annual celebratory event, the 56th Annual GI Research Foundation Ball at the Radisson Blu Aqua, Chicago.

The Ball – hosted by WGN-TV’s Ben Bradley and featuring Emmy-award winning comedian and Saturday Night Live alum, Dana Carvey – was designed to support the physicians and scientists at the University of Chicago Medicine Digestive Diseases Center in their search for better ways to prevent, treat and cure digestive diseases. Their goal is to improve the quality of life for such patients all over the world.

Co-chaired by Beatrice G. Crain and Yekaterina Chudnovsky, both of Chicago, nearly 550 guests joined philanthropic forces. They raised $1.5 million for the continued research support of many types of gastrointestinal conditions, from inflammatory bowel disease and liver disorders, to esophageal, pancreatic and all forms of gastrointestinal cancers.

The fund-raising core goal for this year is the purchase of a long DNA sequencer, a device known as the “Promethlon.” This tool, which costs more than $300,000, will help researchers unravel the genetic sequences of the hundreds of strains of bacteria that inhabit the mouse, or human, digestive tract in health and in disease.

“This is a huge step forward in our work,” said David Rubin, MD, professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at the University of Chicago. “This is the top research funding priority for us right now.”

There is increasing evidence that changes in the bacterial community, known as the gut microbiome, may be directly linked to ulcerative colitis – a disease that can be treated, but cannot yet be prevented or cured. Most of those bacteria cannot be cultured in the laboratory. This makes them difficult to study.

The long DNA sequencer, however, can collect long chains of DNA information from the digestive tract. This will enable researchers to identify the prevalence of specific microbes in the gut and to use that information to understand how the shifting complex of microbes can affect human health.

The long strands of microbial DNA that the Promethlon can decipher – up to 200 times more extensive than previous methods – can simplify the process and improve accuracy. Better data means better understanding.

David Rubin

David Rubin, MD, professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at the University of Chicago Medicine

“This improves our ability to assemble genomes from single organisms, and to gather samples containing complex mixtures of organisms,” Rubin said. “It lets us identify existing and novel bacterial species, and observe subtle trends in the microbiome over time. This could have a major impact on our research research into inflammatory bowel diseases, food allergy, celiac diseases, metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, and even cancer. It also enhances our competitive status worldwide.”

At the May 20 event, GIRF and the University of Chicago Digestive Diseases Center also honored Beatrice G. Crain as well as Sy and Nancy Taxman for their prolonged commitment, major impact and outstanding support and contributions to GIRF, dating back to their close partnership with Joseph Kirsner, MD, PhD, the founder of GIRF and a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.

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