Findings from a new study on the causes of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may lead to new way of treating the condition. According to a team of researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, GERD, which causes painful chest pain and heartburn, may be caused by immune system cells causing inflammation. The study showed that gastroesophageal reflux in rats causes tissue in the esophagus to release immune chemicals called cytokines. Those cytokines attract inflammatory cells that cause the uncomfortable symptoms associated with heartburn and GERD.
GERD is a condition thought to be the result of an acid burn caused by stomach acid splashing up into the esophagus. It is often treated with medications that reduce stomach acid, such as Reglan (metoclopramide). But the new study squashes the “acid burn” belief. “Chemical injuries develop immediately,” the study’s leader, Dr. Stuart Spechler, told Reuters. “If you spill battery acid on your hand, you don’t have to wait a month to see the damage.”
Researchers say that the findings from the new study could change the way GERD is treated. “Currently, we treat GERD by giving medications to prevent the stomach from making acid,” said Dr. Rhonda Souza. “But if GERD is really an immune-mediated injury, maybe we should create medications that would prevent these cytokines from attracting inflammatory cells to the esophagus and starting the injury in the first place.”
An estimated 40 percent of Americans experience symptoms of GERD at some point, and as many as 20 percent suffer from persistent symptoms. If left untreated, GERD can cause esophageal cancer.