The IMAGINE Network Project

Earlier in the year I woke up at the crack of dawn with excited butterflies flying around my stomach. I got myself organized and then got in my car to make my way from Toronto to McMaster University in Hamilton.

As I sat in my car with the smell of exhaust coming from the traffic in front of me, the sound of the rain pitter-pattering on the roof and the radio on low, I practiced my speech and made sure I sat up straight as to not winkle my dress.

Once I arrived at McMaster, I found my way to the Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute and sat in the green room with a few doctors, researchers and Canada’s Minister of Health – Jane Philpott – awaiting for the event to begin. Once 9:30 a.m. came around, we made our way to the atrium and sat alongside various researchers, doctors, health organizations and members of the press. On March 31st I was part of a national research announcement as the lead patient representative for a multi-million dollar McMaster patient oriented research project called the Imagine Network, which stands for Inflammation, Microbiome and Alimentation: Gastro-intestinal and neuropsychiatric effects.

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Myself and Dr. Paul Moayyedi

Did you know that over 20 million Canadians suffer with digestive disorders?

The IMAGINE network project will be researching and developing innovative therapies for irritable bowel syndrome (known as IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (known as IBD, which include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) to better understand the brain-gut connection and the role diet has on digestive diseases. The researchers on this project believe IBD and IBS are caused by an immune response to disturbances in the gut bacteria – brought on by diet and neuropsychiatric effects, like anxiety and depression. Therefore, patients will play a large role in helping to shape the outcomes of this research.

I myself am one of the 20 million Canadians with a digestive disorder. In 2008 I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, one of the two diseases categorized under IBD. It’s an auto immune disease that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal system. Along with Crohn’s, I also have symptoms of IBS, which is a non-inflammatory, functional disorder of the colon. When I was first diagnosed I had no clue what Crohn’s was – neither did most of my family or friends. I was also in my first year of university and felt incredibly alone with the diagnosis. Not only did nobody know what Crohn’s was, but it isn’t a disease that people really like to talk about.

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The Honorable Jane Philpott, Myself, Filomena Tassi and Dr. Paul Moayyedi

At university I would see support groups for students with diabetes, anxiety and other various health concerns, but there wasn’t anything for students with digestive issues. The more I talked about my diagnosis, the more people I came across who had some sort of a digestive issue – or who know of someone with one. It was then that I realized I had to step up and organize a digestive disorder support group at the university. That was my first step in becoming an advocate for digestive health. Now, eight years later, I had the privilege of helping shape the research proposal, which was accepted by the Canadian Institute of Health Research and I had the honour of standing in front of hundred of influential people, to explain the importance of this research for Canadian patients.

As a patient, I can vouch for the importance of better understanding the role that the brain has on the gut and vice versa. When I’m feeling anxious, nervous or stressed, my gut will react and when I’m having a flare up or my IBS is acting up, I will feel anxious. I’m also a huge believer in the role diet plays, because for me certain foods elicit a flare up with my Crohn’s – gluten being a big HUGE trigger.

For the next five years I’ll be working alongside the lead researcher of this project, Dr. Paul Moayyedi, Director of the division of gastroenterology at McMaster University and Dr. Stephen Vanner, Director of gastrointestinal disease research at Queen’s University, along with many other gastroenterologists in Canada and various patients.

It’s a very exciting time in digestive health research. Taking the time to better understand the role that bacteria plays and the connection of the brain and gut are huge strides forward into hopefully finding a cure for IBD and IBS.

Watch below to listen to myself and Dr. Moayyedi provide an overview of the network and an appreciation for receiving the funding.

For more information on this exciting research, check out the Canadian Institute of Health Research’s informative article here.

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