University of Pennsylvania researchers have identified a molecule that they believe stops inflammation. The potential end result is blocking a number of autoimmune disorders, such as Crohn's disease. This discovery could have a major impact on patients who are relying with varying degrees of success on immunosuppressant medications to control these illnesses.
The research team included staff and students from the university's School of Veterinary Medicine. Scientists from the Penn Genome Frontiers Institute and the Perelman School of Medicine collaborated with the research team, according to Medical News Today. Also participating were researchers from Merck Research Laboratories, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Janssen Research and Development, and Harvard Medical School. Their findings appeared in the journal Immunity.
Among the illnesses associated with an immune system gone haywire are lupus, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The two major types of IBD are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America reports that an estimated 1.4 million people in the United States suffer from IBD. About 700,000 of them have Crohn's disease.
It has no cure. Despite decades of research, scientists still don't know exactly what causes Crohn's disease. However, they strongly believe an overactive immune system causes the body to attack substances normally considered harmless or even beneficial, such as food and bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic. Eventually, the body attacks its own tissue, causing inflammation. Other suspected culprits are genetics and environmental factors.
Scientists knew that certain forms of regulatory T cells -- Tregs -- halt various types of inflammation. However, they were unaware prior to the Pennsylvania research how these cells developed specializations to carry out their assignments.
In 2005, Penn researchers working with mice discovered that a molecule called IL-27 actually had a role in blocking inflammation. During the most recent study, they discovered that when they exposed Tregs to IL-27, the cells developed enhanced ability to suppress a specific type of inflammation. After additional research on mice, they concluded that IL-27 is necessary to manufacture the Treg cells that normally keep a lid on inflammatory responses during infections.
The team subsequently discovered that a second molecule, interferon gamma (IFN-y), also suppressed inflammation. They concluded that the two molecules shared the work, but that IL-27 is apparently more important in controlling inflammation at its original site. Now that they understand the relationship between IL-27 and Treg cells, their goal is a huge one: blocking the inflammation associated with Crohn's and other autoimmune conditions.
Like many other patients with Crohn's disease who have undergone multiple surgeries, I've been taking immunosuppressant drugs for decades, along with anti-inflammatories and sometimes corticosteroids. The side effects aren't pleasant. The discovery of an IL-27 molecule that could potentially block Crohn's disease is definitely encouraging for patients with any of these inflammatory conditions.
Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.