Research Advances Immune Therapy
HMS researchers discover critical function of cells that inhibit autoimmune attacks.
The function of cells that prevent the immune system from attacking the body’s own tissues—the cause of autoimmune disorders—has been discovered in a recent study by Researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the Harvard Medical School Department of Pathology.
The findings, which appear in the current issue of the journal Nature, may help scientists develop new approaches to treat autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes and lupus, as well as cancer.
The study’s findings reveal that a subset of naturally-produced white blood cells known as CD8+ Treg cells can counteract the autoimmune attacks on the body, and that these cells can be increased through chemical processes.
“Something very special about CD8+ Treg cells is that they inhibit [these] antibodies [that] attack our own tissue,” said lead author Hye-Jung Kim, a research fellow at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Our findings highlight a network by which these cells control autoantibody formation.”
Autoantibody formation—the creation of antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues—occurs when B cells, a subpopulation of white blood cells, are activated in response to interaction with follicular T helper cells. When follicular T helper cells bind with B cells, autoantibody formation occurs, resulting in the launch of an unwanted autoimmune attack.
Scientists have previously focused on targeting B cells in order to stop antibodies attacking the body’s cells. Kim and the team of researchers have discovered an alternate approach to combatting autoimmune disorders.
“CD8+ Treg cells, instead of controlling B cells directly, control follicular helper cells and are a lot more efficient,” Kim explains. Because one follicular T helper cell can activate many B cells, Kim adds, “If you can control one follicular helper cell, you can control many B cells in the end.”
This research may open new avenues for treating autoimmune disorders, a category of diseases that has affected more than 50 million Americans, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. The team is currently undertaking plans to study how these cells can be used in efforts to deploy the immune system in the treatment of cancer.