A Single Molecule To Prevent Autoimmune Disorders

Researchers from McMaster University have discovered a molecule unfortunately named alphavbeta6 that’s secreted in mouse intestines to prevent an excessive immune response to digested food. From ScienceDaily:

Researchers then generated alphavbeta6 using cultured intestinal cells and found that both could be used to generate the immune tolerant cells needed to reduce or eliminate out-of-control immune reactions.

That’s basically the entirety of the information in the article; I wish it would go into a bit more detail. Why is this discovery revolutionary? The impression given by the article is that 1) alphavbeta6 can have a general effect to treat a wide variety of autoimmune disorders, and 2) this taming of the immune response to a particular stimulus is permanent.

“Currently we do not have special methods to radically treat most immune diseases; all we can do is to temporarily inhibit the clinical symptoms for those diseases,” said Ping-Chang Yang, a researcher involved in the work from the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. “Our findings have the potential to repair the compromised immune tolerant system so as to lead the body immune system to ‘correct’ the ongoing pathological conditions by itself.”

A bit vague, but it seems like point 2) is what they’re trying to say. If we could permanently correct aberrant immune responses, that would be a pretty incredible advancement and would solve a staggering number of illnesses. Of course, this was just the first step; any solution based on alphavbeta6 is still a long way off from having clinical applications. 

Some brief background: “cultured intestinal cells“, mentioned in the first quote above, means cells that are grown on a glass plate, as opposed to in a live animal. Cells of all kinds are grown this way; each requires very particular treatment, and live in a medium of nutrients and pH appropriate to that cell type and what the researcher wants to do with them. Isolated cells outside of an animal are much easier to work with; the trade-off is that behaviour you observe in cultured cells (in vitro) won’t necessarily represent the characteristics of cells in a live animal (in vivo) because of the huge difference in environment. When learning about cells, in many cases it makes sense to try something in vitro first before moving on to more expensive and far more time-consuming in vivo models.

Autoimmune disorders are a pretty widespread phenomenon, where your immune system recognizes some subset of your own cells as invaders and attacks them. Some that you might’ve heard of include celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.  

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