Cure for Crohns: How Close is It?

By David T. Rubin, MD, as told to Camille Noe Pagán

When I started medical school at the University of Chicago, my grandmother told me to go see Joseph Kirsner, a gastroenterologist there who had treated her for Crohn’s disease. If you can believe it, I didn’t even know what Crohn’s disease was at the time. But I still went to see Dr. Kirsner, who was a pioneer in the field. He was 80 then and still seeing patients. We hit it off, and every few months he’d call me to his office. Our talks piqued my interest in GI health, and I decided to become a gastroenterologist too.

Today, I work as a clinician (meaning I see patients) and a researcher. I also oversee the GI division of the University of Chicago, which has one of the largest inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) centers in the country, if not the world. My work is almost entirely focused on IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

I absolutely love my job. Dr. Kirsner taught me that all research needs to come back to the patient. And I really see myself first and foremost as a physician who treats patients. That helps me make better decisions about the research projects I’m pursuing. For example, I recently conducted a study where people with Crohn’s wore Fitbits to track their sleep and physical activity to see if there was a connection between lifestyle habits like lack of sleep and Crohn’s flare-ups.

When I first started practicing, someone came up to me after a lecture and said, “You didn’t mention a cure.” At that point in my career, it hadn’t even occurred to me. Now it’s so obvious. We don’t have a cure yet, and there’s no telling how far it is. But it’s something we in the scientific community are actively talking about. I’d like to see it in my lifetime … but it isn’t clear if that’ll happen.

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