Researchers from the University of Bristol have found a way of convert the function of cells into protecting the body instead of destroying healthy tissue, in what could be an important breakthrough for the treatment of debilitating autoimmune diseases in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body, like multiple sclerosis (MS). This kind of conversion has already been applied to other diseases, but this is the first time that scientists are trying to take a similar approach with autoimmune-type diseases.
The research team, which was led by professor David Wraith and included academics in Bristol University’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Department of Computer Science, was able to selectively target the cells responsible for the autoimmune disease, attenuating the attack against the body’s healthy tissue, as well as convert them into cells capable of protecting against disease.
“Insight into the molecular basis of antigen-specific immunotherapy opens up exciting new opportunities to enhance the selectivity of the approach while providing valuable markers with which to measure effective treatment,” Dr. David Wraith in a press release. “These findings have important implications for the many patients suffering from autoimmune conditions that are currently difficult to treat.”
The study revealed that administrating fragments of the proteins, which usually attack the body, can redirect the autoimmune response. As a result, effective treatment for a disease such as Multiple Sclerosis is possible by increasing the dose of antigenic fragment administrated to patients. During their research, the scientists examined the function of the immune cells themselves in order to understand how the immunotherapy works, and which genes and proteins were turned on or off by the treatment.
The changes in gene expression that the researchers found suggest that effective treatment is able to convert the aggressive behavior of cells into a protector role, resulting in reinstating self-tolerance, which means that the immune system restarts to ignore its healthy tissues, instead protecting against infection.
If proven effective, the treatment may be able to alter the life of the 2.5 million people worldwide who suffer from MS, since it can prevent patients from needing to take immune suppressive drugs associated with side effects like infections, development of tumors, and disruption of natural regulatory mechanisms, by specifically targeting the cells at fault.
The conversion performed by the scientists is a process that was already used in treating allergies, known as “allergic desensitization,” however, its application to autoimmune diseases has never been performed before. It is currently undergoing clinical development through biotechnology company Apitope, a spin-off of the University of Bristol.
The scientists believe that the findings can lead to the use of antigen-specific immunotherapy as a treatment not only for MS, but also for other autoimmune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes, Graves’ disease, and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The study, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust, was recently published at the Nature Communications journal, entitled, “Sequential transcriptional changes dictate safe and effective antigen-specific immunotherapy.”