Modern studies of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) pathogenesis have been pursued for about four decades, a period of time where the pace of progress has been steadily increasing. This progress has occurred in parallel with and is largely due to developments in multiple basic scientific disciplines that range from population and social studies, genetics, microbiology, immunology, biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, and DNA engineering. From this cumulative and constantly expanding knowledge base the fundamental pillars of IBD pathogenesis appear to have been identified and consolidated during the last couple of decades. Presently there is a general consensus among basic IBD investigators that both Crohn's disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC) are the result of the combined effects of four basic components: global changes in the environment, the input of multiple genetic variations, alterations in the intestinal microbiota, and aberrations of innate and adaptive immune responses. There is also agreement on the conclusion that none of these four components can by itself trigger or maintain intestinal inflammation. A combination of various factors, and most likely of all four factors, is probably needed to bring about CD or UC in individual patients, but each patient or set of patients seems to have a different combination of alterations leading to the disease. This would imply that different causes and diverse mechanisms underlie IBD, and this could also explain why every patient displays his or her own clinical manifestations and a personalized response to therapy, and requires tailored approaches with different medications. While we are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of this individual variability, we have only a superficial notion of the reasons why this occurs, as hinted by the uniqueness of the genetic background and of the gut flora in each person. So, we are apparently facing the paradox of having to deal with the tremendous complexity of the mechanisms responsible for chronic intestinal inflammation in the setting of each patient's individuality in the response to this biological complexity. This obviously poses considerable challenges to reaching a full understanding of IBD pathogenesis, but being aware of the difficulties is the first step in finding answers to them.
© 2010 Chinese Medical Association Shanghai Branch, Chinese Society of Gastroenterology, Renji Hospital Affiliated to Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine and Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd.