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February 25, 2019

From investigating GERD to exploring Belgium forests: Get to know Ans Pauwels, PhD, MPharmSc

Our AGA Research Foundation researcher of the month, Dr. Pauwels, is deepening our understanding of the effects of anxiety and depression on gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 

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AGA Research Foundation pilot research awards are an invaluable tool for investigators. They provide seed funding to explore promising new lines of research and generate preliminary data for larger grants. When Ans Pauwels, PhD, MPharmSc, received the 2016 AGA-Rome Foundation Pilot Award in Functional Gastrointestinal and Motility Disorders from the AGA Research Foundation, she was able to intensify her focus on how certain psychological factors such as stress, anxiety and depression influence the symptoms in patients receiving treatment for GERD, a disorder that causes chronic heartburn and regurgitation when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Based on her promising research, we’re excited for you to get to know Dr. Pauwels, a post-doctoral fellow at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and our AGA Research Foundation researcher of the month.

Dr. Pauwels’ AGA-funded project explores why up to 40 percent of patients with GERD fail to get heartburn relief from proton pump inhibitors, the most common form of therapy that suppresses acid reflux and allows the esophagitis to heal. Her work to understand the link between patients’ emotional status, serotonin levels and the severity of heartburn from GERD could lead to more personalized medicine and to new treatment strategies.

The grant, which is jointly funded by AGA and the Rome Foundation, has helped set up Dr. Pauwels for future success. As a result of the data generated from her work, she received the Clinical Science Research Award from the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders in 2018. The next step in her research is to study the effects of citalopram, a drug that increases serotonin levels, on patients receiving GERD therapy who continue to experience heartburn.

Juggling research responsibilities with the challenges of raising a young family is all in a day’s work. Dr. Pauwels shared with us that both her son and her daughter were born during her post-doc work. “Sometimes it is a little bit difficult,” she says. “On the other hand, it helps me put things in perspective.”

Researcher of the Month Ans Pauwels, PhD, MPharmSc

Dr. Pauwels enjoying a family vacation in Lake Como with her husband Fabio Gilio, her son Elia and daughter Mina.

Beyond the Lab

Every year, Dr. Pauwels and the 10 people who work in the lab, run by Jan Tack, MD, PhD, go away for a weekend to get to know each other better. One outing in February 2016 was particularly memorable. The team went on a long hike in Belgium’s Ardennes, a paradise for nature lovers with its dense forests, rolling valleys and rivers. Dr. Pauwels lost her balance on a trail and ended up with one leg completely submerged in the frigid waters. She had to hike back to the teams’ rental house for about five miles with only the sole of her shoe because the rest of it had disintegrated.

On the bright side, “I had some good Belgian beers to warm me up,” she said. “Those weekends away are very important to get to know everybody on a more personal level.”

The AGA Research Foundation funds investigators today so that clinicians have better patient care tools tomorrow. Support the future of patient care with a tax-deductible contribution to the AGA Research Foundation. Donate today at

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