Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus happen when the immune system starts attacking its own body. Up until fairly recently, not much was known about why this happens.
Not too long ago, researchers discovered a class of cells, called B10 cells, that plays an important part in the immune systems.
Most B cells produce chemicals called antibodies, which attach themselves to viruses and bacteria, either killing them directly or signalling T cells to move in for the kill.
But B10 cells serve a different purpose. They send out a chemical signal called interleukin-10 (IL-10), which tells the immune system when to tone down its efforts, preventing damage to the body.
Now, Dr Thomas Fedder and his colleagues at Duke University Medical Center have discovered they can culture these cells, and use them to treat others, at least in mice.
The experiments demonstrated that B10 cells only send out their signals under very particular circumstances, when certain “antigens” were in place. An antigen is a chemical signature that an antibody can latch onto, and is used by the immune system to identify cells.
This was the first study that discovered how B10 cells identify specific antigens that need to be protected, and notify the immune system.
Typically B cells die when they are cultured outside of the body, but the researchers discovered a way to multiply them 25,000 times over. The results were even more spectacular for the B10 cells, however, and multiplied themselves four million times over.
This was crucial, because B10 cells are very rare in comparison with the other cells.
Amazingly, by culturing the B10 cells from one mouse for 9 days, they could produce enough of them to treat 8,000 mice. The symptoms of a multiple-sclerosis type disease were dramatically reduced in the process.