A leading paediatric gastroenterologist is investigating whether reduced vitamin D levels are to blame for New Zealand's high incidence of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) cases.
Professor Andrew Day of the University of Otago, Christchurch, was last year appointed Cure Kids' Chair of Paediatric Research and is heading up a comprehensive programme of research into the disease in children and adolescents.
An umbrella term describing a range of chronic conditions affecting the gut, IBD affects one in every 227 people in New Zealand, with children in the South Island at substantially higher risk than their North Island counterparts.
It's thought the higher rates in South Island children are potentially due to variations in sunlight, which in turn affect people's vitamin D levels.
Professor Day's research aims to understand whether increased vitamin D leads to lower levels of inflammation.
He has been studying nearly 200 children with IBD in the South Island to pinpoint specific aspects of the disease — nutrition, biomarkers, gut bacteria and education and awareness, as well as the association between vitamin D levels and IBD. He and his team will compare this group with healthy controls, which will help to highlight important differences between the two groups.
Professor Day is also committed to finding less-invasive ways to detect and monitor inflammation on the surface of the gut, which might be more suitable for children than the traditional diagnostic blood tests or colonoscopies.
"We've been looking at several stool-based tests to determine how they might give us better information in terms of what the surface of the bowel is looking like and also to help us better predict if the person has a chance of having a flare-up or being affected by the disease in the future," he says.
The cost to the New Zealand health system for children and young people with IBD is estimated to be $25 million each year and Professor Day says the Cure Kids funding has made a "huge difference" to his work.
"I anticipate that the findings from my current research projects will change the outcome for kids suffering these conditions," he says.
Cure Kids CEO Frances Benge says it's great to see what Professor Day and his colleagues are working on and to witness their relentless drive to identify improved outcomes for those with IBD.
"The discomfort and distress experienced by children and teenagers with the conditions can be debilitating. Young people report a decrease in quality of life, as well as large impact on school attendance and every-day activities," says Benge.
"This body of research has the potential to change that and give young people and their families hope."
Professor Day expects to be able to release some further results from his body of research by the end of the year.