A group of researchers at Duke University, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, have been working with a special type of B lymphocyte cell that they believe could eventually be used to treat autoimmune diseases. Their work was recently reported in the journal Nature.[i]
After reading this story, I had to get a refresher in the immune system. I have a degree in biology and this system remains difficult for me to fully understand. And full time researchers live in a complex world of their own nomenclature and symbols so off to the internet I went. When a foreign substance or germ enters the body, the immune system kicks into gear and recognizes the enemy and attacks it. This system is really amazing given the constant barrage of foreign invaders coming at us every day. Here’s a great website called KidsHealth that gives a nice overview of the immune system and the National Institutes of Health provides a more detailed explanation. When the system goes haywire and attacks itself, it’s called autoimmunity.
Central to the immune system are cells called lymphocytes. There are two types of lymphocytes, B Cells and T Cells. Many rheumatoid arthritis treatments are targeted at biochemical processes involved with these cells. To quote KidsHealth,
B lymphocytes are like the body’s military intelligence system, seeking out their targets and sending defenses to lock onto them. T cells are like the soldiers, destroying the invaders that the intelligence system has identified.
But some special types of B cells called regulatory B cells actually serve to suppress or dampen the immune system so it doesn’t get out of check. They turn off T cells keeping them from damaging one’s own tissues. Since they give off a signaling protein called interleukin 10, these cells are called B10 cells and they are quite rare in the body. This role in regulating autoimmunity garnered the interest of the researchers at Duke University as a possible avenue to treat autoimmune diseases like lupus, type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. Their first hurdle was to isolate and reproduce B10 cells. They discovered that they could create millions of B10 cells in the lab. They then put the cultured B10 cells into diseased mice. According to a press release from Duke University,
When a small amount of B10 cells were introduced into mice with multiple sclerosis-like autoimmune disease, their symptoms were significantly reduced, essentially turning off the disease. B10 cells will only shut off what they are programmed to shut off. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you would want cells that would only go after your rheumatoid arthritis.[ii]
Such a treatment of injecting cells into the body in order to shut off autoimmune responses sounds like a wonderful thing. But the researchers point out that the immune system and autoimmune diseases are very complex and they are a ways off from making this a reality in humans.
Of course, one can’t get hopes up too high when reports like this appear. Thirty years ago the miracle of stem cells was touted as being able to cure all sorts of diseases. Yet it remains to become reality. But the notion of cellular therapy for rheumatoid arthritis is an interesting one and it brings hope that a cure may become a reality someday.