Scientists from the Imperial College of London reveled that they have discovered a protein that acts as a “master switch” for inflammation in the body. They believe that this finding holds the key to developing new treatments for, or even curing, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Autoimmune diseases are the result of the body’s immune system turning against itself. There are as many as 100 identified types including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. When this disease process occurs, the body deploys white blood cells called macrophages, to areas of the body that it thinks are foreign in an attempt to heal. However, the macrophages attack healthy tissue, resulting in excessive inflammation. This disease process can cause crippling, or even life threatening, disabilities.
Many patients with these types of diseases are treated with a class of medications called Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) inhibitors. The problem is that does not work sufficiently in all cases. For example, TNF is a primary treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. However, it is expected that as many as 30% of patients with this disease will be unresponsive to TNF inhibitors. Therefore, scientists have been searching for another way to combat these diseases.
The report published in the journal Nature Immunology, identified the discovered “switch” as protein IRF5. This protein is responsible for telling white blood cells whether or not to promote, or inhibit, inflammation.
The senior researcher on the study, Irina Udalova from the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at the Imperial College of London, states “This is really exciting because it means that if we can design molecules that interfere with IRF5 function, it could give us new anti-inflammatory treatments for a wide variety of conditions.”
The National Institute of Health estimates that as many as 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases. This prevalence number rises steadily each year and it is recognized as the 10th leading cause of death in women under 64. This study gives hope that a cure for autoimmune diseases will soon become a reality.