Helmsley Grants $2 Million to Stanford University for Research into New Therapies for Crohn’s Disease

Published Thu, Dec. 09, 2021

NEW YORK, NY – The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust announced today a $2 million grant to Stanford University to develop and evaluate two new therapeutic options to treat Crohn’s disease (CD). The new therapies will aim to induce a durable remission in a larger segment of CD patients than current options by using a high-complexity synthetic microbiome community as a microbiota transplant; and an engineered microbe that can reprogram the immune system to decrease inflammation.

Current treatment options for people with Crohn’s disease are only successful in a subset of patients and have multiple side effects, including immune suppression, and may require regular injections. A successful outcome from this two-year grant could lead to extremely beneficial new treatments for the more than two million people suffering from CD worldwide, as many patients on biologic therapies experience a loss of therapeutic effect and require a change in medication or surgical resection.

“Helmsley’s Crohn’s Disease Program is dedicated to supporting research and new technologies that can improve care and treatment for people with the condition, while we pursue a cure,” said Jessica Langer, PhD, a Program Officer at Helmsley. “Microbiota transplantation holds tremendous promise for inducing remission in people with Crohn’s. Dr. Fischbach’s ability to create a tailored, lab-created transplant for people with Crohn’s could be transformative.”

One of the treatment options currently being tested for people with CD is Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT), a method of transferring fecal microbes from a healthy donor to a patient to change the composition of a patient’s intestines. FMT is limited due to its lack of scalability and donor-to-donor variability that can result in a limited anti-inflammatory response or none at all. This research aims to determine the extent to which changing the composition of a patient’s microbiome using a specially created transplant may control intestinal inflammation and lead to Crohn’s disease remission.

With earlier support from Helmsley, Dr. Michael Fischbach, an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University, developed an extensive community of well-defined microbiomes that are easily reproducible. The community comprises more than 100 different lab strains of bacteria. With the current grant, he will tailor this community specifically to CD and develop an artificial microbiome transplant intended to reduce inflammation in patients.

“I am deeply grateful to the Helmsley Charitable Trust for their vision, support, and partnership in our quest to aim high in improving treatment options for this debilitating disease,” said Dr. Michael Fischbach. “The approach we propose is high-risk; we might not succeed. But if we do, it will create a powerful new therapeutic option for Crohn’s disease patients.”

This grant also features a partnership between Dr. Fischbach and another Helmsley grantee, Dr. Noah Palm, an Assistant Professor of Immunobiology at Yale University. With Helmsley’s support, Dr. Palm and his colleague Dr. Aaron Ring, also Assistant Professor of Immunobiology at Yale, created a system where they can identify which specific host proteins interact with bacterial strains. They will use this system to study the mechanisms by which microbiome-derived proteins and metabolites contribute to Dr. Fischbach’s new bacterial community.

“The new microbiome profiling technologies we have developed with support from the Helmsley Charitable Trust are ideally suited to root out the mechanisms of action of novel microbial treatments for CD, such as the synthetic communities developed by Dr. Fischbach’s group,” said Dr. Noah Palm. “We are thus delighted to team up with Dr. Fischbach on these exciting studies and endlessly grateful for Helmsley’s continued insight and support.”

“The complementarities of Dr. Fischbach and Dr. Palm’s work are significant and prompted us to encourage them to share their ideas with each other. We are thrilled that a collaboration ensued, which we believe has the potential to accelerate important discoveries that could ultimately improve lives for people with Crohn’s disease,” said Dr. Langer.

The second proposed therapy derives from work in Dr. Fischbach’s lab studying microbes that are normally found on the skin or in the gut that provoke strong immune responses. By engineering these bacteria, this response can be directed to specific body sites. The project aims to use these engineered bacteria to reprogram immune cells in the gut to reduce inflammation.

If successfully developed, these two therapies would provide treatment modalities with the potential to induce and maintain remission with minimal side effects, leading to better health outcomes for patients.

About Helmsley

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting exceptional efforts in the United States and around the world in health and select place-based initiatives. Since beginning active grantmaking in 2008, Helmsley has committed more than $3 billion for a wide range of charitable purposes.

Media contact: Emma Gehr, egehr@globalstrategygroup.com