In a recent study, researchers outline a new understanding of the biology of T cells, a type of immune cell in the body.
The discovery could have implications for therapies for cancer and autoimmune diseases.
The study was done by an international research team—co-led by UBC Canada 150 Research Chair Josef Penninger and Harvard Medical School neurobiologist Clifford Woolf.
They demonstrate how the cells can be activated to either enhance immunity against cancer or block autoimmune disease.
One fascinating feature of this discovery is that a system that was actually known in neurobiology for decades can play such a key role in T cell biology.
And since it regulates not only early activation but how T cells grow, the possibilities for medical applications are extremely varied, from controlling autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies to having a new way to trigger anti-cancer immunity.
T cells are the soldiers of the immune system and patrol the body seeking out pathogen-infected cells or aberrant cells that could become tumors.
When T cells find such a cell, they proliferate and enter “combat mode” to fight danger to the body.
However, a common problem is that activated T cells can be directed against the body’s own cells, leading to allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases such as colitis, asthma, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, or certain skin diseases.
In the study, the researchers found that BH4—a molecule needed to produce the “happiness hormone” serotonin or dopamine—controls the growth of T cells.
In animal models, the researchers found treating mice with BH4 blockers “calmed” T cell activity in inflammatory conditions.
Meanwhile, they found that higher levels of BH4 activated growth of T cells, causing tumors to shrink.
By targeting BH4, they are able to suppress T cell activity in inflammatory conditions and increase their activity in the case of cancer.
The ability to target the same pathway in opposite directions is significant and represents a whole new therapeutic approach.
As part of the study, the researchers have developed a new drug called QM385, which inhibits BH4 production, which they hope to soon start testing in human patients.
The finding is published in Nature. One study co-author is Josef Penninger. Another is Woolf, director of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.
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