Balancing act

Stimulating cells that jump in to protect healthy tissues in MS patients when their immune systems attack could lead to new drug therapies, researcher says.

Illustration of a mouse balancing balls on his nose

Researchers investigating how different cells respond when our immune systems mistakenly attack healthy tissues have found a particular cell that jumps in to reduce the friendly fire.

The discovery during research on mice with a multiple-sclerosis-like disease suggests that inflammatory and suppressive immune cells can balance each other out.

Stimulating the protective cells, called CD8 T cells, could lead to new therapies for autoimmune diseases, said Mark Davis, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology and senior author of a study published Aug. 7 in Nature.

“We absolutely think that something like this is happening in human autoimmune diseases. It represents a mechanism that nobody’s really appreciated. There’s this whole subset of CD8 T cells that has a suppressive function,” said Davis, who holds the Burt and Marion Avery Family Professorship.

“If we could mobilize those cells to function more effectively in patients with autoimmunity, then we’d have a novel treatment for diseases like multiple sclerosis.”

For the study, researchers tracked immune cells in the blood of mice with a disease akin to multiple sclerosis and discovered a rise in CD8 T cells, typically known for killing infected or cancerous cells.

To their surprise, injecting mice with peptides that activated these CD8 T cells reduced disease severity and killed disease-causing immune cells.

Autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and celiac disease affect 23.5 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health.