Researchers have found a way to potentially "reboot" the immune system by sending tiny fat bubbles to the lymph nodes
The human immune system is incredibly important for our health, allowing our bodies to fight off infections that could otherwise be lethal. But sometimes it can be a bit overzealous in its role and start attacking healthy cells. Now, researchers at the University of Queensland have found a way to "reboot" the immune system, helping to treat and prevent diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and vasculitis.
The immune system fights off invading bacteria and toxins using T cells that recognize certain molecules, often on the surface of the invader. Molecules that trigger an immune response are known as antigens.
But problems can arise when the immune system gets mixed up, mistakes healthy cells for invaders and starts attacking the body, causing excess inflammation that can be painful. This is the basis for all sorts of autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, and many others.
While there are no cures for these diseases yet, there are immunotherapies that can help manage the symptoms.
"People with these diseases currently require daily medications to modify or suppress their immune system," says Ranjeny Thomas, lead author of the new study. "Rheumatoid arthritis and vasculitis have a huge impact on those living with them because there is no cure, and medication generally cannot be stopped. We think a better strategy would be to restore and re-regulate the specific part of the immune response that has gone wrong."
To do so, the researchers on the new study investigated how to reprogram rogue T cells so that they stop attacking the body. Normally, dendritic cells "teach" T cells what they should be looking for, so the team changed the lessons these dendritic cells were teaching. They did this using tiny fat bubbles called liposomes, which are loaded with specific antigens.
"The dendritic cells naturally like to 'eat' small lipid/fat particles," Thomas tells New Atlas. "When we inject liposomes into the skin they traffic to the lymph nodes, like a vaccine does. The lymph node dendritic cells rapidly gobble up the liposomes after injection. The contents of the liposomes alter the dendritic cells so that they re-educate rogue T cells to calm them down."
The team says this method effectively reboots the immune system, training it to focus on fighting infections once again. In tests on mice, the technique showed promise in treating existing autoimmune diseases or preventing them from appearing in future.
While it's still likely a long way away from human tests, the new research is an encouraging step forward. Injections sound like a more viable and less horrible way of rebooting the immune system than previous studies have tested, which involve intense chemotherapy procedures to destroy a faulty immune system, then rebuilding it with stem cells collected previously from a patient's blood.