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Modified red blood cells 'could alleviate autoimmune diseases'

Published on 17 March 2017
Modified red blood cells 'could alleviate autoimmune diseases'

Scientists have developed a new method of treating autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis by modifying the functions of red blood cells.

A team from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research has been able to use red blood cells modified to carry tailored antigens to alleviate signs of disease in lab mice, suggesting this is an area of research with considerable potential.

How the new approach works
The research, published in the medical journal PNAS, builds on an existing method that uses antigenic peptides to retrain the immune system to ignore antigens that trigger inappropriate responses, preventing immune cells from attacking healthy tissue.

This method is called tolerance induction and is considered promising, but until now it has proven difficult to deliver antigenic peptides to their destination before they degrade or are attacked by the immune system.

By using red blood cells to carry the peptides, it proved possible to successfully treat the autoimmune conditions multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes in test mice, resulting in a reduction of symptoms.

Potential implications for rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions
Although there is much further to go with this research, it is believed that the method could be effective in not only helping to combat existing symptoms of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and inflammatory bowel disease, but also in preventing symptoms from developing, with the use of a single injection prior to the onset of disease.

Harvey Lodish of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research said: "This is a very promising step in the development of therapies for autoimmune diseases. If this type of response is also true in humans, then it could make a lot of these therapies possible for these diseases and similar conditions."

Arthritis Research UK's view
Dr Natalie Carter, head of research liaison and evaluation at Arthritis Research UK, said: "Rheumatoid arthritis is an incredibly painful condition which affects more than 400,000 people within the UK.

"This study is interesting and has the potential to be a tool used to both treat and prevent rheumatoid arthritis. It is promising to see that autoimmunity could be treated in mice, but people with arthritis need to be aware that this research is in its very early stages.

"More research is needed to determine how the results can be translated into a benefit for people living in pain now, and for those who may develop arthritis in the future."

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