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Prevention research project

Understanding the role of interferon in autoimmunity

This study aimed to understand how interferon, a signalling protein in the immune system, is involved in different autoimmune conditions.
Josie Clarkson 31 January 2024

Professor Yanick Crow

Autoimmunity occurs when our immune system attacks our body’s own cells. Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis are all autoimmune conditions. Connect Immune Research is a collaboration between JDRF, MS Society and Versus Arthritis with support from the British Society for Immunology to tackle the underlying causes of autoimmunity. In the first Connect Immune Research project, Professor Yanick Crow at the University of Edinburgh aimed to measure interferon levels in people with different autoimmune conditions.

What is interferon?

Interferon is a protein that affects the action of different cells of the immune system. Interferon can be harmful or beneficial in different autoimmune diseases, but we don’t yet understand why. For example, increased levels of interferon may be important in contributing to conditions like type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. However, interferon is also used to treat people with multiple sclerosis. Researchers don’t know why interferon appears to have protective or harmful effects in different autoimmune conditions.

What did Professor Yanick Crow do?

To better understand the relationship between interferon and autoimmunity, Yanick and his team wanted to measure the interferon levels of people living with different autoimmune conditions. Using a variety of different tests, including a new test developed by the research team, the researchers set out to measure interferon levels in individuals with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, Sjögren syndrome and multiple sclerosis. They aimed to find new links between interferon and these different autoimmune conditions.

How could this research help people with autoimmune conditions?

Understanding why interferon is associated with different autoimmune conditions in harmful or protective ways could help improve treatments for people with autoimmune conditions, potentially by blocking the harmful effects of interferon and harnessing the good effects that it can have on the immune system.

Learning more about the relationship between interferon and autoimmunity could one day mean that doctors could better identify which treatment a person would respond to best, as well as aiding the development of drugs that regulate interferon. The researchers hope their project would also confirm whether their new test for measuring interferon is effective in different autoimmune conditions, meaning it could become the first interferon test available in routine medical practice.

What is Connect Immune Research?

Connect Immune Research is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between UK autoimmune research organisations to bring about a critical change in the way autoimmune conditions are researched. The group estimates four million people in the UK are living with an autoimmune condition, which is more than six per cent of the population. Up to a third of these people are living with more than one autoimmune condition, which can lead to more complex health needs.

Karen Addington, CEO of JDRF UK, said:

“Autoimmune conditions all involve the immune system acting inappropriately, so we know they are connected. But researchers investigating different autoimmune conditions are not. Until now they have largely worked separately, focused on the specific conditions rather than the interconnected factors of autoimmunity. By bringing them together, we can find out more information about these conditions – meaning reduced costs, and more new treatments, faster. One insight into one condition could act as a skeleton key, unlocking a range of treatments and even cures.”

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