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Scientists continue to look into the causes of autoimmune diseases. tianyu wu/Getty Images
  • Although currently there are no cures for autoimmune diseases, researchers are still trying to find what causes them in hopes of developing new treatments.
  • Researchers recently developed a new type of vaccine called an “inverse vaccine” that showed potential in completely reversing autoimmune disease symptoms in mice.
  • Scientists were able to do this without shutting down the rest of the immune system.

Researchers from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago say they have developed a new type of vaccine called an “inverse vaccine” via a mouse model.

The new vaccine was able to completely “reverse” autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease without fully shutting down the rest of the immune system in the mice.

An estimated 1 in every 10 people worldwide has an autoimmune disease — a condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues within the body.

Generally speaking, there are currently no cures for autoimmune diseases. Doctors use a variety of methods — including medications, surgery, and lifestyle changes — to control symptoms, sometimes referred to as “flares.”

Researchers still do not know the main causes of autoimmune diseases. However, they do know genetics, environmental factors, and exposure to certain viral infections can heighten a person’s risk.

This study was recently published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

During this study, researchers developed a new type of vaccine called an inverse vaccine.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Hubbell, a professor in tissue engineering at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and the lead author of this study, a regular vaccine induces immune cell activation to create cells that can kill infected cells and generate antibodies that can bind to and neutralize viruses that would infect them.

“An inverse vaccine can instead unwind such immunity,” Hubbell explained to Medical News Today.

“In an autoimmune disease, we are seeking inverse vaccines that can deactivate immune cells that have erroneously been licensed to attack one’s own cells and even generate cells that can act so as to further tamp down immunity, called regulatory T cells,” he said.

Through the use of the inverse vaccine, scientists were able to do this without shutting down the body’s entire immune system.

“At present, autoimmune diseases are treated in a manner that creates nonspecific immune suppression, rather than immune modulation specific to the autoimmune disease,” Hubbell said. “Clearly, it is better to have an intact immune system and to address the specific molecules and cells that the body is erroneously attacking.”

“Moreover, those immune suppressive approaches must be given chronically, whereas a vaccine approach has the potential to be durable and, if durability is very good, even curative,” he added.

For this study, Hubbell and his team used a mouse model of a multiple sclerosis-like disease called autoimmune encephalomyelitis.

In both conditions, the immune system mistakenly attacks myelin, which forms a protective sheath around the body’s nerves, including those in the spinal cord and brain.

When the inverse vaccine was administered, scientists reported that the immune system stopped attacking myelin. This allowed the nerves to begin functioning correctly and reversed disease symptoms in the mice.

“The body has a number of mechanisms to prevent autoimmunity,” Hubbell explained. “One such mechanism prevents autoimmune responses to our own aging and dying cells. Such cells in the blood are cleared by specialized cells in the liver and are processed in a way that induces and maintains tolerance to that dying cell debris.”

“In our approach, we have created molecules that both look like debris from dying cells and bear the proteins that are attacked in a particular autoimmune disease,” he added. “This hijacks one of the mechanisms the body uses to maintain tolerance.”

A healthy immune system protects the body from infection from viruses and bacteria.

Sometimes, the immune system is mistakenly programmed into thinking healthy tissue or cells in the body are harmful organisms it needs to attack. This is what causes an autoimmune disease.

There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases. Some of the most commonly known are:

Autoimmune diseases are chronic conditions. Each has its own specific symptoms, although most of them do have some commonly shared symptoms such as pain, fatigue, muscle weakness, and inflammation or swelling in different parts of the body.

Although each autoimmune disease affects a person differently, previous research shows people who have an autoimmune disease are at an increased risk for heart disease, depression, organ damage, and cancer.

When asked how quickly we may see an inverse vaccine for autoimmune diseases available for doctors to use, Hubbell said clinical testing has already started for certain conditions.

“The general approach presented in this paper is currently in clinical testing in celiac disease and multiple sclerosis, and we are very excited to see results that will come out of those studies,” he said. “In my lab, we are exploring that in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, allergic asthma, and food allergy, as well as in preventing immunity to drugs used to treat congenital diseases, which are often immunogenic.”

Medical News Today also spoke with Dr. Barbara Giesser, a neurologist and multiple sclerosis specialist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, about this study.

“This is a proof-of-concept study in an animal model of demyelinating disease,” she explained. “It suggests that rather than suppressing the immune system, nerve damage in MS could be prevented by ‘de-sensitizing’ certain immune cells to a myelin protein. This may have the advantage of not increasing susceptibility to infection, which is an issue with some of the more immunosuppressant disease-modifying therapies that are currently in use.”

“This is a preliminary study in a mouse model, and human trials are needed to determine if this approach is safe and effective in people.”
— Dr. Barbara Giesser