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A Single Protein Could Bring Relief From Allergies And Auto-Immune Diseases

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Stephen Luntz

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Stephen Luntz

Freelance Writer

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

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Dr Paula Gonzalez-Figueroa has found that neuritin, once thought only to exist in the brain and nerves, has a role in preventing rogue immune cells causing allergies and auto-immune diseases. Image Credit: Australian National University

Allergies have so many triggers, and auto-immune diseases are so diverse in their effects it seems safe to assume effective treatments will be equally varied. Yet one team of scientists has found the little-known molecule neuritin has potential in dampening down an enormous range of harmful over-reactions by the body's defense. Perhaps there really is one protein to rule them all, and a short-cut out of so many people's suffering.

The immune system is like the body's law enforcement, neutralizing threats to the community of cells. Sometimes, however, rogue immune cells start attacking innocent parties instead, be they the vital organs or harmless bits of pollen.

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"We found this absolutely fascinating mechanism of our own bodies that stops the production of rogue antibodies that can cause either autoimmunity or allergies," said Professor Carola Vinuesa of the Australian National University in a statement. "We have shown it is one of our immune system's own mechanisms to prevent autoimmunity and allergy and now we have the evidence, we can go on to harness that for treatment." 

Dr Paula Gonzalez-Figueroa admitted to IFLScience that the possibility of a universal anti-allergy/auto-immune treatment “Sounds too good to be true.” Nevertheless, she went on; “The underlying cause of all these conditions is the overproduction of rogue antibodies.” Neuritin suppresses this. Admittedly, one can also eliminate allergies and auto-immune conditions by suppressing the whole immune system, with disastrous consequences. Neuritin, however, appears to have far more targeted effects than many existing treatments – and as a protein that already exists in the body, Gonzalez-Figueroa hopes it will leave the immune system free to fight the invaders it is meant to fight. 

Immunofluorescence image showing purified Tfr cells that are the immune system's main source of neuritin. Image Credit: Paula Gonzalez-Figueroa

If the possibility a single protein could have such broad effects is astonishing, the fact we are only learning about it now is almost equally hard to believe. Gonzalez-Figueroa explained to IFLScience neuritin has been known for a while, but only in the brain and nerves. The idea it could have any role at all in the immune system is recent. “Our laboratory found the cells that produce neuritin 10 years ago,” Gonzalez-Figueroa told IFLScience. “They’re very rare cells but we knew they had an important role in regulating the immune system.” The neuritin gene stood out as one of those these cells express the most.

Gonzalez-Figueroa and Vinuesa have published a study in Cell, demonstrating that mice modified to not produce neuritin for the immune system suffer more severe allergies. Moreover, the researchers are confident this isn’t just more work in mice that won't extend to humans. “We’ve also tested it in human cells,” Gonzalez-Figueroa told IFLScience. “We looked at lymphocytes from several patients’ tonsils and pushed them to produce antibodies. If we added neuritin it blocked the process where the cells differentiate to produce [rogue] antibodies.” 

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"This could be more than a new drug – it could be a completely new approach to treat allergies and autoimmune diseases," Vinuesa said

The team has already had discussions with potential pharmaceutical partners. However, Gonzalez-Figueroa says the team wants to identify which of the 80 or so autoimmune diseases are likely to be most effectively treated by neuritin before starting trials, a process she thinks will take “a couple of years”. Work is underway on treating mouse models of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and food allergies to settle this question.

 


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