Featured paper: Better understanding of autoimmunity

Fresh insight into the immune system could lead to better understanding of diseases that occur when the immune system fails.

Scientists working in Edinburgh Infectious Diseases have discovered that a key protein linked to autoimmune reactions – which occur when the immune system attacks the body – also helps control the immune responses to exogenous disease.

The protein not only activates the production of cells that attack the cause of potential illnesses – such as an invading virus or bacteria – but also controls when to shut down this response. In this way, the immune system is prevented from overreacting and attacking itself.  Researchers say the protein, known as PTPN22, could give clues to what happens when the immune system gets out of control.

Their discovery may also have implications for organ transplant patients, in whom immune systems must be suppressed to enable donor organs to function.  A team of scientists led by Prof Rose Zamoyksa's group in the Institute for Immunology and Infection Research at the University of Edinburgh, studied the immune systems of mice. They found that when the protein PTPN22 was absent, not only was there was an increase in the activity of the effector T cells of the immune attack response, but the immunosuppressive activity of the regulatory T cells also increased.  This increase in regulatory T cell activity helps to explain why mice lacking PTPN22 do not develop autoimmunity and suggests that PTPN22 could be a target for autoimmune therapy. 

The work, carried out with The National Institute for Medical Research, King’s College London and Lund University, was published in the journal Science Signaling. It was supported by the Wellcome Trust, Arthritis Research UK and the Swedish Medical Council.

Prof Rose Zamoyska said:

Until now, it wasn’t clear what the role of this protein was in the immune system, but it appears to have a role in policing immune response. Investigating how this protein functions in humans could tell us a great deal about how our bodies manage disease, and could point towards ways in which we might control autoimmunity in future.

 


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