Scientists to develop rheumatoid arthritis vaccine

Scientists to develop rheumatoid arthritis vaccine

Scientists in the UK are hoping to develop a new vaccine using patients' own blood cells to suppress the effects of rheumatoid arthritis; if successful the work will signal a major breakthrough in the treatment of the auto-immune disease.

Newcastle University's Musculoskeletal Research Group is to carry out the research, which is being funded by a 216,000 pound grant from the medical research charity the Arthritis Research Campaign. Leading the team is John Isaacs, Professor of Clinical Rheumatology at the University; in a press statement he called the work, which is currently at a very early experimental stage, "hugely exciting".

Isaacs and his team will be testing the effectiveness of the experimental vaccine in 8 volunteer patients being treated for rheumatoid arthritis at the Freeman Hospital. The pilot trial will roll out to a larger trial eventually, depending on how successful the vaccine proves to be.

Healthy immune systems protect the body by fighting infection, but in some people the immune system goes too far and starts to attack healthy tissue as well, causing it to become inflamed and painful, the characteristic symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

Scientists believe that what stops a healthy immune system from becoming overactive and causing rheumatoid arthritis is having the right balance between mature dendritic cells that activate the immune system and tolerogenic dendritic cells that suppress it.

Isaacs and his team hope to increase immune system suppression in people with rheumatoid arthritis by causing some of their white cells to transform into tolerogenic dendritic cells. This can be done, they think, by mixing the white blood cells with chemicals, steroids and vitamin D and then reinjecting them back into the patient's knee like a vaccine.

Isaacs said that previous research suggested this would lead to a suppression of the auto-immune response. The team will then take cell biopsies two weeks after the vaccine has been injected to check whether the desired response has taken place, and whether it only affected the injected joint or whether it has spread via lymph nodes to other parts of the body.

In the UK alone there are over 350,000 people living with rheumatoid arthritis. There is no cure for this painful condition, although the Arthritis Research Campaign said that new drugs such as one it pioneered and developed itself, called anti-TNF therapy, have revolutionized its treatment in the last 10 years. But the downside of current treatments is that they suppress the immune system too far, leaving the patient open to the risk of infection.

The new vaccine being explored by Isaacs and his team would have the benefit of switching off unwanted immune responses, without suppressing that part of the immune system that protects against infection by outside agents.

The team at Newcastle are not looking for any more volunteers for this research.

Click here for Arthritis Research Campaign.

Sources: Newcastle University, Arthritis Research Campaign.

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