Why the Wellcome Trust and JDRF believe in investing in autoimmune research
The 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.”
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”.