Blocking Autoimmunity Naturally


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Rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile diabetes and psoriasis are all examples of autoimmunity, a condition in which the body attacks its own tissues. One way to treat such conditions is to use drugs that suppress the immune system across the board, but this is a drastic and potentially dangerous measure. Therefore, researchers are searching for selective autoimmunity drugs, which can bring the immune system under control by targeting specific mechanisms.

Weizmann Institute scientists have now identified a protein that controls an important immune mechanism -- the chain of reactions triggered by interleukin 18, a molecule that belongs to the vast category of immune messengers called cytokines. Interleukin 18 plays a role in the very early stages of the immune response, by delivering the molecular commands that determine T cells' mode of action. The Weizmann team, led by Prof. Menachem Rubinstein of the Molecular Genetics Department, included Dr. Daniela Novick and graduate student Soo-Hyun Kim.  The study, reported recently in Immunity, was performed in collaboration with Prof. Charles A. Dinarello of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

The researchers called their newly-isolated molecule IL-18BP, for  interleukin-18 binding protein.  When IL-18BP was injected into experimental mice, the production of interferon-gamma, one of the major substances released by T cells under the influence of interleukin 18, stopped almost completely. Since excessive release of interferon-gamma by T cells can cause autoimmunity, these results suggest that IL-18BP may one day serve as a basis for medications that will treat autoimmune diseases. No clinical studies to support this suggestion have yet been performed.

IL-18BP may also make it possible to develop a new drug for suppressing the immune system during organ transplants. Because it is a natural protein, IL-18BP may cause fewer side effects than the currently available medications used for this purpose.

Prof. Rubinstein holds the Edna and Maurice Weiss Chair of Cytokine Research. This research was supported by The Ares-Serono Group and the National Institutes of Health.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.