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New approach to autoimmune diseases

Press release issued: 8 September 2003

A new approach to the treatment of autoimmune diseases is the subject of a talk by Dr Neil Williams at the BA Festival of Science.

A new approach to the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and multiple sclerosis is being developed by scientists at Bristol University.

The research is the subject of a lecture by Dr Neil Williams of the University’s Department of Pathology and Microbiology delivered on Monday, September 8 as part of this year’s British Association Festival of Science.

Dr Williams and his colleagues have identified novel bacterial products that can 're-educate' the immune system to turn off the inflammatory processes that cause autoimmune diseases.  Such diseases affect large numbers of people, remaining with them for the rest of their lives, and cannot be adequately treated at present.

Although it has evolved to do good, the immune system can be a major cause of disease.  Autoimmune diseases arise when the normal processes of control break down and the immune system begins an attack on the components of our own bodies. 

Current research has uncovered many of the mechanisms by which the immune system causes the damage in autoimmune diseases.  This understanding has led to the belief that there may be ways of ‘re-educating’ the immune system to stop the damage.

The work carried out at Bristol focuses on the ability of a group of proteins produced by diarrhea-causing bacteria to modulate the immune system.  The researchers have found that if these proteins are altered, they can be used to change the way in which the immune system behaves and stop it from damaging the body’s own tissues in autoimmune disease. 

This could lead to the development of a ‘vaccine’ which could be used to turn off rather than turn on the immune system.   While previous treatments have focused on managing the pain and inflammation caused by autoimmune disease, this new approach would prevent damage occuring in the first place. 

An initial phase of clinical trials, necessary to determine the safety of any new drug, will begin in early 2004.  The team hopes to follow these very quickly with a small study to test whether human disease can indeed be treated using this approach.

The lecture A case of mistaken identity: can vaccines be used to trest autoimmune disease? will be delivered at 10.30am on Monday, September 8 in Lecture Theatre B2, the Newton Building, University of Salford.  It will review the advances made in this area and highlight the process that takes a discovery from a basic scientific finding to a medicine for use in humans.

The BA Festival of Science is the UK's largest science festival, attracting over 300 speakers and around 10,000 visitors and has been taking place since 1831. The BA Festival of Science 2003 runs from 8 - 12 September at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester in association with Northwest Science.

The BA is the UK's nationwide, open membership organisation dedicated to connecting science with people, so that science and its applications become accessible to all. The BA aims to promote openness about science in society and to engage and inspire people directly with science and technology and their implications. Established in 1831, the BA organises major initiatives across the UK, including the annual BA Festival of Science, National Science Week, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges.


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