New Study Brings Hope: Scientists Discover How to “Switch Off” Autoimmune Diseases

The beginning of September has brought with it some very exciting news for those of us living with rheumatoid arthritis! Scientists have made an important breakthrough in the fight against debilitating autoimmune diseases by revealing how to stop immune system cells from attacking healthy body tissue.

Your body’s immune system is supposed to protect you from disease and infection. But for those of us with chronic inflammatory conditions – such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes – our immune systems also mistakenly attack healthy cells. This happens because our immune systems are unable to distinguish between healthy tissue and potentially harmful substances.

In recent years scientists have made considerable progress in developing treatments for these diseases – and many of us depend on these advanced treatments to function in our daily lives. However, many of these treatments have undesirable side effects, including affecting normal immune function and thus making us more susceptible to infections. A different type of therapy, called antigen-specific immunotherapy, attempts to overcome these issues and has been shown to work in some trials.

Antigen-specific immunotherapy involves administering increasing doses of the molecules that the body normally attacks in order to help the body gradually build up a tolerance to them. However, until now scientists did not know the best dose to use to create a safe, long-term protection and they did not completely understand the underlying mechanisms that led to the tolerance. But a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Bristol, has shed some light on both of these unknowns. The study was published in Nature Communications on September 3, 2014.

In the new study the researchers looked at a specific type of white blood cell, called CD4 cells. These white blood cells usually help fight infection but, in individuals with autoimmune disease, they instead drive the immune response that results in inflammation. So the researchers administered increasing amounts of protein fragments that are normally the target for attack and they watched to see which genes were switched on inside the CD4 cells at different stages. They discovered that as the dose was increased, genes that positively regulate inflammation were switched off, causing the cells to convert from aggressive cells into protective cells. They were also able to identify the genes that characterize these CD4 cells.

What this complicated explanation of molecular biology means is that the researchers were able to discover an optimal dose escalation strategy to encourage cells to stop attacking healthy tissue and instead ignore them – essentially switching off the autoimmune response. And the important part of this discovery is that, unlike many of the biologics and other medications that we currently depend on, this was accomplished without immunosuppressive drugs with undesirable side effects.

While this isn’t a cure, this exciting study opens up new and exciting opportunities for continued research that may eventually lead to a more effective treatment for autoimmune conditions. The antigen-specific immunotherapy treatment approach, which could improve the lives of millions of people worldwide, is currently undergoing clinical development through the biotechnology company Apitope.

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