Approximately 0.2 percent of the world’s population suffers from ulcerative colitis (UC), a serious and chronic inflammatory bowel disease that currently has no cure. Common symptoms include frequent diarrhea, often with blood or pus, pain, fever, weight loss and anemia. Patients also have a significant elevated risk of developing colon cancer. The number of persons living with UC is expected to increase by 0.8 percent every year and the risk of getting inflammatory bowel diseases has increased by more than ten times over the past 75 years.
The quality of life for patients suffering from moderate to severe UC is low and comparable to cancer and hemophilia, with high levels of anxiety, depression, unemployment and sick leave. Most people diagnosed with UC are between 15 and 30 years old and the disease usually comes in periodic flares. There is no cure for UC and most patients require lifelong medication. Today’s treatment methods have limited efficacy and may cause patients to experience severe side effects.
The impacts of ulcerative colitis on society
The costs of an unhealthy society, and especially for UC patients, are high. In addition to direct treatment costs, widespread indirect costs can arise due to low productivity as measured by workforce participation. Specifically, UC patients may be unable to join the labor market or continue working in the way they would if they did not have the disease. This is due to UC’s chronic character and the fact that it affects young people, who are key members of the workforce.
The annual costs of ulcerative colitis are approximately 12.5-29.1 billion EUR in Europe and 8.1-14.9 billion USD in the United States. There is a high need for treatments that allow patients to live a normal life – both for the patients themselves and also for society at large.
Current treatment methods are insufficient
The goals of current treatment methods for UC are to induce remission (minimizing the symptoms or eliminating them completely), followed by administration of maintenance medications to prevent relapse. The standard treatment for UC depends on the extent of colon involvement and disease severity and includes anti-inflammatory drugs, immunosuppressive drugs, as well as biological drugs targeting specific components of the immune response.
However, a large portion of UC patients do not respond to current treatment options, which are also associated with severe side effects. In addition, patients may stop responding to the medication over time and must find new ways to treat their disease. For patients that experience chronic flares and that do not respond to medical therapy, surgical removal of the colon through a colectomy is often the only remaining option.
A colectomy is a highly invasive surgical procedure associated with significant risks for short- and long-term complications during and after surgery. Post-operative complications can include infections, abdominal pain and infertility and even death. Moreover, patients often experience a low quality of life after the surgery, associated with physiological and psychological symptoms, high unemployment rates and high rates of sick leave.