SCOTTISH scientists have been awarded a £1.8 million award from an international philanthropic trust to help their understanding of an incurable condition known as Crohn’s disease.

The funding for the University of Edinburgh has come from the Leona M and Harry B Helmsley Charitable Trust – a US-based charity committed to improving lives. It will help improve how experts monitor and determine outcomes for the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects around 120,000 people in the UK.

The disease leads to painful inflammation and ulcers forming on the lining of the gut, and many patients have to undergo multiple operations during their lifetime. Helmsley’s Crohn’s Disease Program is aiming to find a cure for the disease and to enhance the quality of life for patients.

The trust typically does not accept unsolicited applications, but identifies research of an exceptionally high standard around the world and this is one of the first projects in Scotland to be funded by Helmsley.

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Scientists will focus their research on finding out more about mitochondria – tiny parts of our cells that are key to providing our bodies with energy – which are believed to have evolved from bacteria around 2-3 billion years ago.

In IBD, mitochondria have been found to give off “danger signals” that immune cells confuse with bacteria, leading them to trigger an unintended and harmful inflammatory responses.

The project aims to find out if these signals could be used to develop a simple, non-invasive test, using blood or stool, which can show if the inflamed bowel wall has healed after treatment.

Currently, the only way to determine healing is by using invasive colonoscopy.

Researchers will investigate if this non-invasive test could allow doctors to forecast how patients are progressing, which could speed the search for new therapies.

It could also help doctors spot different forms of Crohn’s and develop personalised treatments.

Dr Gwo-Tzer Ho, of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research, who is leading the study, said: “We are very hopeful that our work will lead to better tools to predict how the disease affects patients, which could ultimately lead to improvements in their treatment and quality of life.”

Dr Garabet Yeretssian, director of the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Crohn’s Disease Program added: “Addressing the unmet medical needs of people with Crohn’s disease is at the centre of our program’s mission.

“The team at Edinburgh has a tremendous opportunity to create simple diagnostic tools necessary to transform the standard of care for Crohn’s disease patients.”

Meanwhile, Edinburgh Genomics, the university’s DNA sequencing facility, has received an internationally-recognised accreditation to mark the quality of its genome analysis services, which can decode the entire genetic make-up of a human or any other species in a matter of days.

It is the first laboratory of its kind in Scotland to achieve the UK government-recognised quality mark, which confirms its services meet an international standard – called ISO 17025:2005.