Roadmap to a Cure for Crohn’s Driven to Change IBD Landscape as We Know It

They call themselves “Propellers.” They’re a team of volunteers, made up of IBD patients and caregivers who created a non-profit called Propel a Cure for Crohn’s in 2016. They are laser focused on preventing and curing Crohn’s disease and, on the heels of their first research project funded at Stanford University in the world-renowned lab of Professor Mark Davis, they’re now determined to make a meaningful difference through their Roadmap to a Cure for Crohn’s effort. During this month (September 2022), they’re aiming to raise $50,000 to help get their latest project off the ground and to provide a solid foundation to bring their global team together.

This is a grassroots effort fueled by patient and parent volunteers. Patients and caregivers have an opportunity right now to directly influence a brighter future without Crohn’s! This is a peer-to-peer fundraiser—it’s not just about the monetary donations, but also sharing the message with others far and wide. Not only are international researchers involved, there are people all over the globe participating. In addition to the English-language campaign, there are also Swedish and Portuguese online campaigns running as well.

The Patient/Caregiver Perspective

Ildiko Mehes recalls what it was like when her 9-year-old daughter received her lifechanging Crohn’s disease diagnosis in 2017.

“As a parent, a serious diagnosis like Crohn’s is a huge shock, and it’s absolutely devastating and heartbreaking. Even during periods of remission, we are always on high alert and waiting for the other shoe to drop. At diagnosis, my whole world stopped, literally and figuratively. As irrational as it sounds, as a parent, you wish the rest of the world stopped with you to help you address the crisis. You wish that all of modern medicine rolled up their sleeves and urgently worked together to precisely diagnose the problem and bring her back to long-term health.”

As a caregiver, Ildiko has a unique sense of urgency and determination. She feels we need and can do better for IBD patients.

“When an otherwise healthy child, with no prior medical history, suddenly presents with IBD symptoms during a routine winter virus, you ask yourself “what caused this switch to be flipped?” Not having any answers to the underlying mechanism of disease onset or perpetuation, having a trial-and-error approach to disease management, and being forced to consider serious immunosuppressive medications with modest clinical trial benefits feels unacceptable as a parent. This is what drives me.”

As a pharmaceutical executive with more than 20 years of experience, Ildiko uses that unique skill set to go after complex and difficult goals with Propel a Cure and feels a deep sense of obligation to help our community.

“While there is excellent research ongoing in IBD, it happens in silos. It lacks global coordination and a plan. We don’t yet understand many basic things about Crohn’s. We are all just hoping for a “eureka moment” that hasn’t come over the last 100 years. We are continuously enticed with headlines of a “promising” new pathway or new drug candidate, usually in mice. And then that great idea sits there, with no progress made, a decade or more later. I know we can do better,” she said.

Natalie Muccioli Emery was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011 and she’s also a Propel a Cure Board member. She started dealing with abdominal issues 26 years ago. Being a veteran patient has provided her with perspective about how far treating and managing IBD has come and how far we still have to go.

“Propel a Cure was the first organization whose mission resonated with me. I appreciate their mission to cure Crohn’s Disease, but I even more appreciate the fact that they have laid out a plan as to what the areas of knowns and remaining unknowns are in their Roadmap to a Cure for Crohn’s project. Complex issues like Crohn’s Disease will take a collaborative and systematic approach to address, and this cause has captured that,” said Natalie.

Not only is Natalie an IBD mom, she’s also an IBD aunt!

“I believe that as an adult with IBD, the way I embody the role of a “Crohn’s Warrior” is not for myself it is for the next generation. I have “been there and done all that” with Crohn’s. But just because I did it with Crohn’s doesn’t mean the next generation should have to. I grow increasingly concerned when I see the rising rates of IBDs like Crohn’s in younger people. I believe the rising rates of Crohn’s should create a sense of urgency and a desire for a better future.”

Putting the puzzle pieces together

The Roadmap to a Cure is an ambitious project but one that is needed to drive real progress toward cures and prevention of IBDs, not just talk about “cures” in some very distant future. Ildiko says the brilliant clinicians and scientists she has gotten to know all tell her that getting to a cure will take a grassroots effort, global collaboration, and involvement of patients and caregivers.

“We at Propel a Cure are deeply committed to doing exactly that. The first step in our project is to systematize what we already know about Crohn’s today. We know a great deal, thanks to research. But when we are talking about complex fields like genetics, epigenetics, immunology, microbiology, epidemiology, multi-omics platforms and artificial intelligence, etc. there is no way any one person or group can know everything. We need a large global group of dedicated and brilliant experts to put all the puzzle pieces we already have on one table so we can begin to then put the pieces together,” she explained.

Grabbing the attention of medical professionals and researchers

Propel a Cure grabbed the attention of Dr. Bram Verstockt, MD, PhD, Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, University Hospitals Leuven, on social media.

“I truly like the concept of joined forces across various stakeholders, including patients and caregivers. As clinicians and scientists, we can have ideas about how to move forward based on experiences and interactions with patients on a daily basis. However, the next step really is to involve patients actively in many of these projects, as is currently the case with Propel a Cure,” said Dr. Verstockt.

The “Roadmap to a Cure” aims to bring together expertise across many different fields and niches in IBD.

“Over the past decades, a lot of scientific evidence has been generated in multiple domains of Crohn’s disease, so now it’s time to bring all that evidence together and truly connect the dots. Only by doing so, one might unravel knowns and unknowns and highlight where the remaining key gaps are, and we can define the priorities and strategies of how to fill these gaps to significantly advance the field, to improve the lives of patients with Crohn’s disease,” said Dr. Verstockt.

Where the roadmap can take us

After the initial step of putting together the state of the art, the next step is identifying gaps in our knowledge: what puzzle pieces do we still need? The third step is to develop the plan, or the Research Roadmap, to get from what we know today to developing cures and prevention strategies.

“We truly believe in a future where we can prevent and cure Crohn’s and eliminate so much patient and family suffering,” said Ildiko.

The reason this requires a grassroots effort and all of us patients and caregivers to fund it, is that otherwise the current system largely doesn’t provide incentives for new ideas or cures or global collaborative efforts of this magnitude. A recent paper discusses how the same ideas have been funded for decades, with limited progress and that we urgently need new directions.

Ildiko believes the current research incentive model is broken. “If we want true progress and cures for Crohn’s and other IBDs, we need a new collaborative model among IBD foundations/nonprofits, patients, caregivers, researchers, clinicians, and others. I believe this can become a model for other chronic and immune-mediated diseases.”

Click here to watch a video where Ildiko explains the Roadmap to a Cure project further.

Hopes for the future

I would really like to see more key opinion leaders be brave about acknowledging the risks and limitations of current therapies, avoid putting lipstick on a pig when discussing some newer drug candidates in trials with lackluster results and the same mechanisms, dispense with biased headlines like “safe and effective” when the data is much more nuanced or unclear, and openness to “outside-the-box” ideas, like microbiome manipulation, including via diet, infectious triggers like Epstein-Barr virus in Multiple Sclerosis, vagus nerve stimulation, Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), hyperbaric oxygen, etc. and also adopt routine monitoring via intestinal ultrasound for many patients,” said Ildiko.

As of now (September 12, 2022)—more than $26,609 has been raised!

“I have been overwhelmed by the response so far, as has the entire Propel team. People are really connecting with our mission. We are getting donations from so many states and countries! We have received more messages of profound thanks and hope than I can recount. This fuels us so much,” said Ildiko.

Natalie feels a wide range of emotions each time she sees a donation come in or the campaign shared across social media.

“I go from feeling hopeful, to introspective, to sad. I truly wish we did not have to do this campaign and that in 2022 we knew what the underlying cause(s) of Crohn’s are, and that safe, effective, reliable treatments were available for all Crohn’s patients. But here we are. Crohn’s is still very much part of the lives of patients and caregivers, and we need to take action to change that. I am so grateful for the outpouring of support we have received so far, but there is more work to be done!”

Propel a Cure has virtually no overhead fees or salaries, so every single dollar donated to Roadmap for a Cure goes to research.

We are all volunteers who work out of our homes. The donations will be put towards collaborative research teams worldwide. Each team will lead a contributing area to the development of Crohn’s Disease (environment, microbiome, immune system etc.) and highlight where the gaps in knowledge remain,” said Natalie.

“The ultimate dream obviously would be to cure and if not, to significantly improve the quality of life for millions of patients worldwide,” said Dr. Verstockt.

Click here to donate to this incredible cause or to join their team.

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