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Why the Wellcome Trust and JDRF believe in investing in autoimmune research

4 Feb, 2014

Beat autoimmunityThe Wellcome Trust recently hosted a joint meeting with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) to discuss the common mechanisms of autoimmune disease and look at how collaborative research could be used to help beat autoimmune diseases. The JDRF’s Helen Albert shares the big takeaways from the event.

There are more than four million people in the UK with an autoimmune disease. Type 1 diabetes, which affects more than 400,000 people in the UK, is one of the best characterised and most common autoimmune conditions.

JDRF in its capacity as one of the biggest funders of type 1 diabetes research around the world, last year carried out an analysis of UK research into type 1 diabetes in June 2013. The Type 1 Diabetes Research Roadmap highlighted that the UK is a world leader in autoimmunity research, but that collaboration between different groups of researchers could be improved. The joint meeting was an excellent forum for building connections and exploring opportunities for expanding collaboration.

Collaboration is the name of the game

Professor Matt Brown from the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute in Brisbane, was one of four keynote speakers at the conference. He explained that “over the last seven or eight years big progress has been made in the genetics of immune-mediated diseases because people realised that we all had to collaborate globally on specific diseases to be able to actually make any progress”.

The immunochip project, which involved the creation of a microchip that could be used by scientists to look for genetic variants only found in people with several different autoimmune diseases,  is a great example of what can be achieved by working together and has given researchers the opportunity to work across many different immune-mediated diseases, said Brown.

Adding to Brown’s thoughts on collaboration, another keynote speaker, Professor Paul-Peter Tak from GlaxoSmithKline, commented: “There is an opportunity to learn from shared mechanisms between different immune-mediated inflammatory diseases as well as from the differences.”

Beat autoimmunity

Initial impact

Although it is still early days, presentations and discussions at the meeting highlighted that collaborative autoimmune research has already started to benefit patients.

For example, drugs targeting an immune-system protein called interleukin (IL)-23, which were originally developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, are very effective for treating the chronic skin disease psoriasis, as well as other immune-mediated conditions.

“This sort of repositioning should hugely accelerate the rate at which you can translate from the genetics to a treatment,” said Brown.

Another example of successful repositioning is rituximab, a type of protein or ‘biological’ drug that targets B cells. It was originally developed to treat blood cancers, but has since shown promise in treating autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.

Professor John Todd of the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research at the University of Cambridge, commented that the new studies of rituximab “could be very informative for a whole range of diseases including type 1 diabetes.”

Future directions and challenges

JDRF’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Richard Insel, predicted that the next five years would lead to production of “autoantigen specific vaccines that regulate autoimmunity and can either prevent disease or modify existing disease”.

Tak highlighted a lack of bold innovation as a key factor holding back autoimmune research. He said that braver thinking is needed in order to identify new therapeutic targets and embrace research on stratified medicine.

Professor Mark Peakman of King’s College London, emphasised that “we don’t yet have a ‘big picture’ way of looking at these diseases collectively in the UK”.  He suggested “assembling the right talents, data, patient groups etc, into a big grouping where the outcome might be more than the sum of the parts.”

Peakman praised the meeting, saying that it was “a beginning in that direction and its success suggests we should build more capacity in this area”.

Addressing challenges affecting autoimmune research, Insel said decent funding, industry commitment and good relationships between industry and academia are needed for better, more effective research into autoimmunity, as well as better improved patient resources and better ways to track disease risk and progression, to allow better optimised clinical trial design and shorter, smaller trials.
Both JDRF and the Wellcome Trust came away enthused by the shared thinking, open debate, and opportunities for collaboration that came from two days of intensive discussion. Both organisations restated their commitment to supporting researchers in this area with a view to dramatically changing the landscape of autoimmunity research in the UK.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 Feb, 2014 2:51 pm

    Encouraging to learn of the progress of research in this field. History reminds us of the need to work imaginatively, and collaboratively. Nineteen years ago, back in February 1995, the Wellcome Witness Seminar entitled ‘Self and Non-Self: A History of Autoimmunity’ addressed this very issue. Professor Ivan Roitt, talking about the impact of a paper published in The Lancet (Roitt I M, Doniach D, Campbell P N, Vaughan-Hudson R. (1956) Auto-antibodies in Hashimoto’s disease. Lancet ii: 820–821) remarked:

    “What is interesting is to appreciate how the scientific community decided to take on the idea that autoimmunity might be connected to disease…..The UK scientific community took it on board very rapidly, it wasn’t rigid in its views, but opened up, was imaginative and had no difficulty in thinking it was reasonable. In the States, probably most of the scientists and physicians were okay, but the pathologists fought to the last drop of somebody’s blood. It was not possible to get a grant from NIH if you wanted to work on human autoimmunity at that stage.” (Page 41)

    For those readers who wish to read further, the Wellcome Witness Seminar ‘Self and Non-Self: A History of Autoimmunity’ is available to download for free from our website:

    http://www.history.qmul.ac.uk/research/modbiomed/wellcome_witnesses/volume01

  2. Colin permalink
    17 Feb, 2014 1:37 pm

    It is definitely a necessity to pull resources in this way. Collaborating is the only way to not only be able to save money in these expensive fields but come up with strategies to aid people with any illness. From reading this post it has already been proven that research into drugs and autoimmune disorders has led to discoveries previous unknown, who knows what further collaboration could highlight. The notion of the immunochip project is the perfect example of how working together can actually save lives.

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