Immune Cells Could Hold Key to New Treatments

Posted: January 3, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: December 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm

By Marjorie Musick

Yuntao Wu

Yuntao Wu. Creative Services photo

The human immune system’s main function is to fight off infection and disease, but what happens when that same system attacks healthy cells instead?

Autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, are a category of diseases in which the body attacks its own tissues. They affect approximately 8 percent of the population in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Scientists from the National Institutes of Health, George Mason University and Duke University say they have figured out a part of the mechanism for creating a type of cell that plays an important role in keeping the immune system from overreacting — frequently the main culprit in autoimmune diseases. These cells, called regulatory T cells or “T reg” cells, are also involved in the control of cancer and HIV infection.

By manipulating cells at the genetic level, research teams discovered how the proteins bind to the cell and also how those same proteins can change a healthy cell into a vector for disease.

WanJun Chen, a physician and chief of the Mucosal Immunology Unit at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and the project’s principal investigator, led the teams. A Mason research team headed by Yuntao Wu, professor of molecular and microbiology in the College of Science, assisted with this study.

“Dr. Chen’s study has revealed a previously unknown mechanism in the control of the differentiation of regulatory T cells. Id3, a molecule that was known to inhibit or prevent DNA-binding proteins from binding to their gene targets, has been identified as a new player in this regulation,” says Wu.

“Dr. Chen is a leading immunologist in the regulatory T cell field, and we are also well established in the HIV virology field. Our expertise complements each other,” Wu explains.

According to Chen, recognizing how T reg cells function was a much needed breakthrough for scientists in the field looking to “break the bottleneck” in understanding autoimmune diseases.

“This study may help us open our minds to broader and deeper levels and could lead to new therapies for autoimmune diseases. For example, specific T reg cells could be used to suppress these diseases or to block the spread of infected cells and to promote the growth of tumors in cancer patients,” says Chen. “By better understanding how these regulatory T cells are generated and how these cells function, we hope that our studies will help ultimately develop more effective and specific immunotherapy for the treatment of patients.”

The study was published in the Dec. 5, 2010, online edition of the journal Nature Immunology. The study was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu