A switch for the immune system


Vienna researchers have discovered a mechanism that activates or deactivates the immune system. This can open new avenues for cancer therapy and in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Assessing the body's own weapons against tumors is the idea behind cancer immunotherapy. This approach was followed by a research team from the Molecular Biotechnology Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) along with international colleagues. They have examined substances that actually play an important role in the human nervous system, a building block of "happiness hormone" dopamine and serotonin.

Two active substances regulate the immune system

Research shows that one building block of this happiness hormone, BH4, activates the immune system. Because BH4 changes T cells and is deadly, says cell biologist Shane Cronin of IMBA, lead author of the study. "If there are lots of BH4, then the T-cell lights up, ready to fight and be aggressive," Cronin said.

The cell biologist and his colleagues at IMBA, Harvard University, and the Max Planck Heidelberg Institute were able to identify two active substances that use this mechanism and thus regulate the immune system. "BH4 already exists in the market with a different purpose," Cronin said. Other active ingredients were discovered and tested by scientists themselves. You can now selectively activate T cells on or off.

IMBA video on research results

An important candidate for cancer therapy

This makes BH4 an important candidate for immunotherapy for the future of cancer, because activated T cells feel and fight cancer cells. Early experiments on mice have been successful. Other drugs that Cronin and his colleagues have found are completely the opposite: it regulates BH4 and causes the immune system to close.

By reducing BH4, one can regulate overactive T cells that attack healthy cells in the body in autoimmune diseases, Cronin said. In colitis, in multiple sclerosis, in allergies and asthma, scientists have succeeded in mouse models. New drugs not only kill BH4 and T cells, but calm the entire immune system. Both therapeutic approaches, which fight autoimmune diseases and those that fight cancer, will be clinically tested in the next few years.

Also imagined as an antidepressant

If these drugs are successful in patients, they can come to the market in a few years. Meanwhile Cronin wants to continue his research in another direction: Because BH4 affects serotonin "hormone happiness" and thus the human mood, cell biologists want to investigate the relationship between the immune system and nervous system in more detail.

"Maybe we can also increase serotonin levels in the brain with the same or similar drugs," Cronin said. This not only can bring progress in the treatment of depression, but also neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, so scientists hope.

Marlene Nowotny, Ö1-Wissenschaft

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