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Trailblazing Physician-Scientist Uncovers New Therapies for Kids Suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease

August 4, 2021

Dr. Edwin de Zoeten works at the intersection of research, education and clinical care – and he’s leveraging that unique role to bring new discoveries from the lab to the bedside to help patients facing the debilitating effects of inflammatory bowel disease.

Kids with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) face a tough road, but they’re not alone on their journey. Edwin de Zoeten, MD, PhD, backed by his team of expert clinicians and researchers at Children’s Hospital Colorado, is relentless in his pursuit of a better path for these patients.

IBD is a chronic inflammatory disease of the digestive track and includes conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The symptoms can be debilitating and range from extreme fatigue, poor growth, abdominal pain and cramping to persistent diarrhea and rectal bleeding. Prolonged inflammation can permanently damage the digestive tract and lead to other serious issues.

Dr. Edwin DeZoeten

From bench to bedside and back

Dr. de Zoeten, co-director of the Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at the Children’s Colorado Digestive Health Institute (DHI), is a physician-scientist. He spends about 25% of his time providing patient care and the rest in his lab on the Anschutz Medical Campus, researching new IBD therapies.

His dual roles serving in the clinic and the lab uniquely position Dr. de Zoeten at the intersection of education, medical research and clinical care, which greatly benefits the families he serves.

“I act as a translator to bring perspectives from the clinic to the lab and vice versa. Scientists are really focused on a single question or pathway, but we have to bring it back to how it could help patients,” Dr. de Zoeten says.

Much of his research is focused on precision medicine, which looks at genetic and environmental factors to find more personalized treatments. For example, he and his colleagues in immunology recently found a new genetic mutation that causes very early onset inflammatory bowel disease. Through teamwork with immunologists and bone marrow transplant specialists, they were able to treat this patient with a bone marrow transplant and allow for a more normal life.

If we can identify the specific gene mutation that causes the problem, we can develop a customized therapy, instead of treating the disease like we would any other patient with IBD,” he says. “We now understand what is happening in about 20% of these patients, but we want to find out about the other 80%.”

Dr. de Zoeten’s current research is supported by a four-year federal grant that builds on his earlier findings regarding a protein called lactoferrin, which is present in body secretions.

“There are high levels of lactoferrin in breast milk, and this protein actually affects intestinal cell growth as well as the bacteria in the gut,” he says. “It seems to have the ability to calm the immune system and may decrease the hyperactivity of gut inflammation we see in IBD.”

His team is seeing promising results using lactoferrin to stop intestinal infections in mouse models, and Dr. de Zoeten hopes to launch clinical trials for IBD patients at Children’s Colorado in about three years.

‘We were hoping for support’

Success in bench to bedside research is one of the reasons why U.S. News & World Report recognized the Children’s Colorado gastroenterology program as No. 1 in the country. It was also a deciding factor that led Denver philanthropists David and Suzanne Hoover to make a significant investment in the program.

“Our interest is in trying to help people, and where we see the greatest impact is through education and health care,” Mr. Hoover says about how he and his wife decided where to direct their generous donation. “We heard about what Ed was doing in the lab and wanted to help improve the care and quality of life for these children with serious digestive issues.”

In December 2020, the Hoover Family Endowed Chair for Digestive Health and Nutrition was established, with Dr. de Zoeten named as the first recipient. An endowed chair is one of the highest honors a clinician or scientist can receive, and the funds will provide a permanent source of income for Dr. de Zoeten’s groundbreaking research into new therapies for pediatric digestive diseases.

Dr. de Zoeten recalls his initial disbelief upon receiving the news while on a hike with his family in the mountains.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was the best call ever,” he says. “We were hoping for support and somehow it happened.”

He adds: “This gift really demonstrates the support for our program and our patients. We must work on understanding these diseases to define how best to treat them and then take what we know and teach it to the next generation of gastroenterologists and pediatricians.”

Fueling the next breakthrough

Philanthropic support is key to Dr. de Zoeten’s work because there are many challenges to advancing pediatric research. It is a very costly, historically underfunded, and incredibly time-consuming endeavor. The Hoover endowment will help Dr. de Zoeten and his team overcome funding barriers and develop life-changing new therapies for kids with digestive diseases.  

“We have so many clinical questions that come up within our team, but we often have to prioritize the questions that have the greatest chance to get funded,” Dr. de Zoeten says. “The financial backing from the Hoover family gives us some breathing room, so when one of our providers asks a new question, we can rapidly activate research to help answer it.”

Dr. de Zoeten says despite the challenges of conducting research, every inch forward is well worth the effort because it leads to new treatments and a better life for patients around the world. Since joining Children’s Colorado in 2010, Dr. de Zoeten and his colleagues have already uncovered countless new answers and currently have multiple IBD clinical trials underway.

“When we discover a new medication or pathway to target — or even make small advances in our understanding — that moves us closer to our goal of a cure for IBD,” he says. “I think of all the kids that this research can help. It’s exhilarating.”