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Prevention research project

Stopping immune cells from launching an autoimmune attack

Professor Lucy Walker from University College London is running a research project to target a specific type of immune cell in the hope of stopping the immune attack responsible for type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune conditions.
Content last reviewed and updated: 17.08.2023

Professor Lucy Walker

Connect Immune Research, our partnership with ten other autoimmune research organisations, awarded Lucy a grant for this project thanks to funding from The Lorna and Yuti Chernajovsky Biomedical Research Foundation.

Autoimmune conditions

Autoimmune conditions, like type 1 diabetes, happen when our immune system attacks our own cells instead of invading cells such as viruses. It’s common to have more than one autoimmune condition, and there are similarities between their underlying biology.

How can the immune system go wrong?

The similarities in autoimmune conditions are mostly early in disease development, when the immune system stops being properly controlled. This happens due to interactions between two types of immune cells called T cells and B cells – not to be confused with insulin-producing beta cells. When T cells start talking to B cells, it triggers proteins called autoantibodies to be produced, which target the beta cells.

What are follicular helper T cells?

The T cells that team up with B cells are called follicular helper T cells (Tfh). The Tfh start to change early on in several autoimmune conditions, including type 1. Targeting Tfh would be an innovative new way of intervening with the earliest stages of the immune attack to prevent multiple autoimmune conditions.

What is Lucy’s research project?

Lucy wants to find a way to deliver a toxic drug to only the Tfh cells to halt the autoimmune process, without affecting any other cells. She has developed a new chemical technique to create a drug to target the Tfh cells. Lucy and her team will test if the drug works by adding it to cells in plastic dishes and then to lab animals. Once she knows her method works, she will create a human version of the toxic drug and will begin testing it on human cells in a plastic dish.

What progress has Lucy made?

In the first six months of her year-long project, Lucy developed a drug that is able to locate the Tfh cells and attach to them. Her initial experiments testing variations of the drug on mouse immune cells in a plastic dish allowed Lucy to fine tune it. She then attached a toxin (which damages the DNA of cells it enters) to her drug. This is a big achievement because it has never been done before with the particular type of drug and toxin that Lucy was using.

What will the research team do next?

Next, Lucy will test the now-toxic drug in Tfh cells from mice in a petri dish. Her team has worked out how to edit their drug so that it works on human cells. This is crucial for translating their findings from mice to humans. They have also developed a test to study whether the drug works in human Tfh cells. Once the animal experiments are complete, Lucy will create the human version of the drug and test it on human cells in her lab.

Who could Lucy’s research benefit?

Lucy’s project could ultimately form the basis of a new therapy for people in the early stages of autoimmune conditions including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and many more. This means people who have been recently diagnosed with these conditions, or possibly even people who are at risk of developing them. By targeting the mechanisms that underlie disease development, rather than just the symptoms, this approach may offer a way to stop autoimmune diseases in their tracks.

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