When the Body Attacks Itself

Ariana Barbera is looking into autoimmune diseases that occur when the body "attacks" itself. They include more than 80 illnesses and affect 5%-8% of the worldwide population. The Cuban scientist will focus on T-cells, which might be a new solution to cure them.

More than eighty chronic inflammatory conditions are considered to be autoimmune diseases, triggered when underlying defects in the immune system cause the body to attack its own proteins. These diseases, which include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and type 1 diabetes, affect 5-8% of the world’s population. New forms of treatment are desperately needed as current therapies based on immunosuppression result in generalized inhibition of all immune activity, leaving patients poorly armed to fight infection.

Ariana Barbera hopes that her PhD research into the role of T cells in autoimmune disease will lead to an innovative solution. In healthy individuals these blood cells play a variety of roles in the adaptive immune system. Helper T cells recognise pathogenic proteins and induce an immune response, whilst regulatory T cells ensure self-regulation of the system to prevent excessive inflammatory responses by T cells, such as those observed in autoimmune disease.

Her research group has designed two peptides aimed at potently skewing the regulatory effect of the T cells. Ariana has shown that it is possible to strengthen the response of regulatory T cells to selectively eliminate pathogenic T cells, whilst leaving the remainder of the immune system intact.

In her host laboratory at Utrecht, Ariana will be trained in the isolation and culture of T cells and antigen-presenting cells from healthy blood donors. She will then test the immune response induced by the designed peptides individually and in combination using in vitro systems. On return to Cuba, she will assist with a Phase 1 clinical trial where one of the designed peptides will be tested in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. On a second visit to Utrecht, she will conclude the evaluation of the immune response by testing combinations of the two peptides in blood from patients with autoimmune diseases to see if there is a positive synergistic effect.

She expects to observe a reduction in pro-inflammatory cytokines and cell proliferation of pathogenic T cells in these patients, which could pave the way for the development of new treatments for autoimmune diseases.

For Women in Science

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