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IBD Collaboration a Win-Win Scenario

With a focus on fungi, Dr. Iliyan Iliev applies animal models to human solutions

Iliev, IliyanDr. Iliyan Iliev would advise any young fledgling scientist to do a gut check to determine if their field of study genuinely excites them. It’s a crucial component to a career in science, where challenges and roadblocks can thwart anyone lacking passion and dedication. Likewise, it’s also a valuable quality when research takes the kind of unexpected turn that can lead to dramatic new possibilities.

This has been Dr. Iliev’s experience in pursuing promising treatments for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). His fascination with the subject stretches across 15 years in microbiology, immunology, inflammatory disease, and gastrointestinal disorders. In fact, Dr. Iliev has traveled the globe to work in both academia and the private sector, leading to his present position as a Primary Investigator at the Jill Roberts Institute for Research in Inflammatory Bowel Disease, part of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. Along the way, he found that collaborations allow answers to arise faster, as many minds are focused on the same questions. The Jill Roberts Institute, working with the Jill Roberts Center for IBD, has established a live cell bank of human samples. This bank provides a robust resource for scientists to design experiments, with the long term goal of improving patient treatment. In short, finding answers together creates progress for all involved in the understanding of IBD.

The Role of Fungi Provides a Clue

The Iliev Lab is currently exploring the diverse and rich community of fungi that live in the gut. Their work complements ongoing research being done on microbiota and bacteria in the intestines. For example, by investigating the role of the intestinal fungal communities (mycobiota) in mucosal immunity, and how fungi interact with the bacterial counterpart in the gut, Iliev Lab’s findings suggest that a balanced fungal community is necessary for the maintenance of intestinal health.

The evidence of fungi in the gastrointestinal tract goes back in the late 1800’s. Back then, no one was looking into why the fungi were there, or how they interacted with the host. But, today, labs are actively researching how fungi affect its host and the conditions that cause them to be beneficial to immunity, or to act as pathogens. With a better understanding of conditions where fungi might contribute to intestinal disease, the Iliev Lab can start to pinpoint targets to test in experimental models.

Collaborations Prove Rewarding

Dr. Iliev’s team has set a useful example as to how translational science projects can evolve from a more basic perspective. Applying observations made in mouse models to human samples can provide valuable clues on how to treat patients. In a recent collaboration Dr. Iliev, Dr. Inga Peter and Dr. Jean-Frédéric Colombel received a Rainin Foundation Synergy Award to examine the composition of the fungal community in babies born to mothers with IBD. Specifically, they are trying to understand whether fungi can be transferred from mothers to babies and potentially contribute to disease later in life.

Dr. Iliev realizes that there are many new hypotheses to investigate, a process that will take time. That’s where the passion and commitment come in. He continues to feel the same genuine excitement for the subject as when he started the journey. At this point, Dr. Iliev contends he doesn’t want to know where his research will take him in five years. But, he wishes for a better understanding of the fungal component in the disease, and in the regulation of immunity. Of course, the best-case scenario might be in a direction he hasn’t even imagined yet. That’s what it means to be a scientist, says Dr. Iliev, and where the excitement comes from.

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