Immune system switch

Viennese scientists have found a mechanism that turns the immune system on or off. This could open new pathways in the treatment of cancer and in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Assessing our own body weapons against cancer is the idea of ​​cancer immunotherapy. This approach was followed by a research team of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) along with international colleagues. Investigating a substance that actually plays an important role in the human nervous system is a building block of dopamine and serotonin "hormones of luck".

Two active substances regulate the immune system

Research shows that one building block of this good fortune, BH4, activates the immune system. Because BH4 switches on and off T cells, says cell biologist Shane Cronin of IMBA, lead author of the study. "If there's a lot of BH4, then the T cells will turn on, they're ready to fight and be aggressive," says Cronin.

The cell biologist and his colleagues from IMBA, Harvard University and Max Planck Institute Heidelberg have been able to identify two active substances that use this mechanism to regulate the immune system. "BH4 is already on the market for another purpose," says Cronin. The second active substance was discovered and tested by the scientists themselves. Now you can selectively switch and turn on T cells.

IMBA video about research results

An important candidate for cancer treatment

This makes BH4 an important candidate for future cancer immunotherapy because activated T cells feel and fight against cancer cells. Initial mouse experiments have already been successful. The second drug that Cronin and his colleagues discovered is exactly the opposite: it regulates BH4 and causes the immune system to turn off.

By reducing BH4, it is possible to regulate excessive T cells that attack healthy cells in the body of autoimmune diseases, says Cronin. In inflammatory bowel disease with ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, allergies and asthma, the researchers were successful in the mouse model. The new drug not only shut off BH4 and therefore T cells, but it calmed the entire immune system. Both therapeutic approaches, those against autoimmune diseases and cancer will be clinically tested over the next few years.

Also conceivable as an antidepressant

If medicines are successful in a patient, they can reach the market within a few years. Meanwhile, Cronin wants to continue its research in a different direction: Because BH4 affects serotonin's "lucky hormone" and hence people's mood, a cell biologist wants to examine in more detail the relationship between the immune system and the nervous system.

"Maybe we can also raise serotonin levels in the brain with the same or similar drug," says Cronin. It could not only make progress in the treatment of depression but also in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease, and thus the hope of the scientist.

Marlene Nowotny, Ö1-Wissenschaft

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