Identifying new drug targets for inflammatory autoimmune diseases

Dr Helen Wright from the University of Liverpool has received funding to help tackle the root cause of life-changing autoimmune conditions.

The £83K grant is one of ten new autoimmunity research projects receiving nearly £1 million from the partnership of the Lorna and Yuti Chernajovsky Biomedical Research Foundation and Connect Immune Research, a coalition of immune-related medical research charities.

Autoimmune conditions affect an estimated four million people in the UK – equivalent to more than six per cent of the population – but are currently incurable. Examples include type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and alopecia. Although these conditions affect different parts of the body, researchers know from observing commonalities that they are somehow linked, and that better understanding this link will pave the way to improved treatments for all autoimmune conditions.

The ten new 12-month pilot projects will explore how to target pathways common to the development of multiple autoimmune diseases to increase our understanding and generate new treatments. The ultimate aim of this initiative is to deliver significant new investment to confront the UK’s high prevalence of autoimmunity and develop new treatments for multiple autoimmune conditions, faster.

Dr Wright’s research project is focused on neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that protects against infection. Neutrophils can dismantle their DNA and release it outside the cell as a ‘neutrophil extracellular trap’ or NET to help trap and kill bacteria. However, in autoimmune diseases NETs can cause the body to mis-recognise some molecules as ‘foreign’ and create an inappropriate immune response against the tissues that contain high levels of these molecules.

Dr Wright, a fellow at the University’s Institute of Life Course and Medical Sciences, said: “We believe that NETs may be a new drug target for treatment of autoimmune inflammatory diseases. Our project will identify key targets for drug development to target NET production in inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. It is hoped this work will be a step towards increased treatment options and improved disease outcomes for patients with autoimmune diseases.”

This first round of pilot grants aims to quickly develop proof of principle for potential new treatments for multiple autoimmune conditions by examining similarities between the different diseases. On completion, the most promising projects will be invited to apply for follow-on funding to take their work forward.

Professor Yuti Chernajovsky, Co-founder and Trustee of the Lorna and Yuti Chernajovsky Biomedical Research Foundation, said: “The Chernajovsky Foundation is delighted to be funding these innovative translational research projects with our Connect Immune Research partners, which we hope will improve the lives of people living with autoimmune conditions. We look forward to seeing the projects develop as part of a new collaborative approach to research on autoimmunity.”

Further information on the 10 grants funded can be found here.

Image: Neutrophil Extracellular Trap, CHDENK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons