A new Italian study shows that thalidomide could put childhood and adolescent Crohn’s disease on the path to remission.

For the nearly five million people worldwide who suffer from Crohn’s disease, there may be some relief on the horizon.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the drug thalidomide has shown positive results when tested on children and adolescents with Crohn’s disease.

Thalidomide is usually used to treat multiple myeloma and inflammatory diseases that affect the skin and mucous membranes. However, its use is restricted because of a high risk of birth defects for pregnant women taking the medication.

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Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory condition that affects the digestive tract. Although there is no cure, the disease can be managed with anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, and antibiotics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are five groups of drugs that are currently used to treat Crohn’s disease: aminosalicylates (5-ASA), steroids, immune modifiers (azathioprine, 6-MP, and methotrexate), antibiotics (including metronidazole, ampicillin, and ciprofloxin), and biologic therapy (inflixamab).

About 25 percent of people with Crohn’s develop the disease as children. Such cases are typically more difficult to manage than those that develop during adulthood.

The study authors also note that around 18 percent of children with Crohn’s disease require surgery within the first five years after the disease onset. The CDC estimates that between 66 and 75 percent of people with Crohn’s will require surgery at some point in their lifetime.

Surgery to widen or remove sections of the small intestine or colon becomes necessary when the body resists drug treatments to control the symptoms of inflammation.

No one knows precisely what causes Crohn’s, but evidence suggests that the number of cases is increasing worldwide.

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Marzia Lazzerini, Ph.D., of the Institute for Maternal and Child Health in Trieste, Italy and her colleagues examined 56 Italian children with Crohn’s disease over the course of four years. The children had not previously responded to drug treatment.

The team found that, after eight weeks of treatment, there were strong signs of improvement in the group treated with thalidomide, but not in the placebo group. The authors report that 31 of the 49 children treated with thalidomide achieved clinical remission from Crohn’s, averaging about 181 weeks.

Although the authors say their findings must be replicated before they can recommend this treatment for children with the inflammatory disease, these results give childhood Crohn’s sufferers reason to hope.

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