Helmsley Grants $5 Million to Study Rise of Crohn’s Disease in the East

ENIGMA researchers in Hong Kong and Australia will investigate environmental triggers of inflammatory bowel diseases

New York, NY—The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has provided a total of $5.2 million to the Australasian Gastro Intestinal Research Foundation (AGIRF) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) to study environmental factors that influence the development of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), which have been rising in Asia.

The three-year grants will support researchers in Hong Kong and Australia who are part of the ENIGMA (Eastern Inflammatory Bowel Disease Gut Microbiota) consortium to identify microbial organisms and related dietary factors that contribute to the development of Crohn’s disease, one of the two major forms of IBD and a life-long disabling condition of the gut. Rates of IBD have been rapidly rising in the developing world. The change has been especially pronounced in China, which is expected to have over 1.5 million cases of IBD by 2025.

As Crohn’s disease becomes more common across industrialized societies, the ENIGMA consortium will have a pivotal role in understanding and preventing the global increase of the disease.

Garabet Yeretssian, IBD Program Director

The ENIGMA consortium is uniquely positioned to study the key triggers of Crohn’s disease across different populations. The AGIRF team is looking at Australia, which has among the highest rates of the disease worldwide, and the CUHK team is examining China and Hong Kong, where the disease rate is low but rapidly rising. By analyzing the factors that cause Crohn’s disease in these different places, the ENIGMA consortium expects to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how environmental factors affect the disease. Through this research, the consortium aspires to develop optimal dietary and bacterial modification therapies for treating Crohn’s disease.

“As Crohn’s disease becomes more common across industrialized societies, the ENIGMA consortium will have a pivotal role in understanding and preventing the global increase of the disease,” says Garabet Yeretssian, Director of the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s IBD and Crohn’s Disease Program. “We hope these initiatives will help researchers gain deeper insights into the dietary and environmental events and unravel new mechanisms to slow the progression of Crohn’s disease. This kind of expansive and groundbreaking research is needed to develop interventions that limit the global rise in disease incidence, and it brings us closer to finding cures for Crohn’s disease.”

Helmsley’s IBD and Crohn’s Disease Program has allocated more than $190 million to institutions across the world, bringing scientists together in new collaborations to study the different facets of the disease and incorporate the latest emerging technologies and scientific insights into their research. These are the IBD and Crohn’s Disease Program’s first grants in Asia and Australia.

“The rise of Crohn’s disease in the East presents a golden opportunity to essentially travel back in time and study the origin of a disease using 21st-century knowledge and techniques. We are tremendously grateful to the generous support from Helmsley that has allowed us to study environmental drivers to Crohn’s disease as it emerges in new populations,” says Dr. Siew Ng of CUHK. “By pinning down dietary and bacteria changes that are most important, we may have a shot at preventing new cases and slowing the global rise of Crohn’s disease. It will have a real impact on our communities challenged by this chronic disease.”

“We are very grateful to Helmsley for supporting this leading-edge research endeavor that seeks to unlock the cause and specific new treatments for Crohn’s disease,” says Dr. Michael Kamm of AGIRF. “The bugs in the gut and the food that we eat are likely to be fundamental to the development of Crohn’s disease. This scientific and clinical platform of experts crosses geographical and ethnic boundaries and offers the prospect of exciting discoveries of immediate relevance to patients.”

The ENIGMA consortium is led by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne in Australia, together with the University of Queensland and key inflammatory bowel disease collaborative partners in mainland China.

About the Helmsley Charitable Trust

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting effective organizations in health and select place-based initiatives. Since beginning active grantmaking in 2008, Helmsley has committed more than $1.8 billion for a wide range of charitable purposes. Helmsley’s IBD and Crohn’s Disease Program supports leading research institutions across the globe in an unprecedented effort to find a cure—and until then better treatments—for IBD and Crohn’s disease. For more information, visit helmsleytrust.org.

About the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Founded in 1963, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is a leading comprehensive research university with a global reputation. Located in the heart of Asia, CUHK has a vision and a mission to combine tradition with modernity, and to bring together China and the West.  Together with the Graduate School, the University offers over 300 undergraduate and postgraduate programs. All faculties are actively engaged in research in a wide range of disciplines, with an array of research institutes and research centers specializing in interdisciplinary research of the highest quality. The University ranked top 50 in the QS World University Rankings 2016. To learn more about CUHK, please visit www.cuhk.edu.hk.

About St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and the University of Melbourne

St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne is one of Australia’s leading health care providers. The University of Melbourne is Australia’s leading university, and one off the world’s top 50 universities. Both are devoted to improving health and well-being through excellent care and world-leading research. 

About the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute

The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute (UQDI) is a modern research facility where clinical and basic science converge in the translational research of cancer, immunology, and genomic medicine. The Institute is host to over 300 researchers, students, and support staff and lays claim to global, world-changing discoveries such as the first cervical cancer vaccine. UQDI has strong clinical interactions, world-class facilities, and a greater collaborative research environment, allowing researchers to focus their efforts on turning their scientific discoveries into better treatments for diseases including a variety of cancers, osteoporosis, arthritis, and other autoimmune diseases.


Laura Fahey, 212-953-2814, lfahey@helmsleytrust.org