The National Institutes of Health estimate that more than 23 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease, making it one of the most prevalent categories of disease, ahead of both disease and cancer.


The immune system is a finely engineered defense system designed to shield our body from harmful pathogens and cancer cells. But sometimes the battle gets out of hand and the immune system turns on the very “self” it is meant to protect. What results are chronic autoimmune and inflammatory conditions that, over time, lead to tissue damage.

Investigators have catalogued over 80 such conditions: prominent among them are type 1 diabetes, in which immune cells destroy insulin-producing pancreatic cells, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which attacks the lining of joints, and multiple sclerosis (MS), which irreparably damages the myelin sheath that covers nerve fibers. Related conditions include pathologies that don’t seem intuitively “autoimmune,” such as heart disease or Alzheimer’s, both of which have an inflammatory component.


For reasons not yet understood, the incidence of autoimmune diseases is increasing in developed countries. Some attribute this surge to environmental toxins that incite an immune attack, and others to the obesity pandemic, as adipose tissue generates inflammatory factors. Others say it stems from exposure to bacterial or viral pathogens that induce a “mimicry response”, in which the body mistakes its own healthy cells for infected ones.

Whatever the cause, inappropriate mobilization of T cells against a person’s own tissues occurs in almost all autoimmunity. The good news is that a familiar cast of immune cell players often drives or repels the attack, meaning that drugs aimed at the pro-inflammatory contingent can sometimes be effective against multiple conditions. Among the most familiar are corticosteroids, wonder drugs first used 50 years ago to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and now found in ointment form in most medicine cabinets.

Steroids have brought relief to sufferers of autoimmune conditions (and also saved lives of transplant patients) but their side effects limit long-term use. For patients with life-long autoimmune disease, non-steroidal treatments are now an option, thanks in part to what researchers have learned after almost three decades of research, about signaling factors known as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) proteins.


Researchers Say it’s Possible to Treat Autoimmune Diseases Without Compromising Immune Systems

Treatments that leave sufferers of autoimmune diseases vulnerable to viruses and bacteria could be a thing of the past with a new drug being developed — based on a study by The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

The study — led by scientists at TSRI shows how dangerous autoimmune responses, seen in diseases such as lupus, ulcerative colitis and multiple sclerosis, might be “dialed down” without compromising the immune system’s ability to fight viruses and bacteria, according to information released by the scientists.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found an unexpected mechanism at work in an anti-autoimmune drug candidate called ozanimod (now under development by Celgene).

The scientists have been working on clinical trials of the drug — it still has not been approved by the FDA — in the treatment of ulcerative colitis and MS but in the course of the trials, the doctors found that they could administer low doses of the drug and still get a treatment response.

This made researchers think there was an unknown mechanism behind the drug’s effectiveness, leading them to further test its effects on the immune system. The body’s immune system needs a strong response to fight off bacteria and viruses — but not a response so strong that it attacks its own cells. This means that physicians would not have to use huge amounts of harsh medicine for treatments, thereby not ramping up all of a body’s autoimmune responses.

When a body’s autoimmune responses are operating overtime the body attacks itself. The new drug, say scientists, could leave the body with some immune systems intact, in order to fight viruses and bacteria. It would block the overproduction of immunity proteins by targeting the cells where “auto-amplification,” or a rampant growth of autoimmune cells, occurs.

Scientists are hoping to apply the same principle to fight lupus, they announced in a news release.


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