News Release 

Repurposing existing drugs or combining therapies could help in the treatment of autoimmune diseases

University of Birmingham

Research led by the University of Birmingham has found re-purposing already existing drugs or combining therapies could be used to treat patients who have difficult to treat autoimmune diseases.

Funded by Versus Arthitis, the research was led by the University of Birmingham's Institute of Inflammation and Ageing and Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences and was published today (June 17th) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research, a collaboration with the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University of York, Université Rennes in France, and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, was supported by the National Institute for Health Research Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre.

Dr Saba Nayar, of the University of Birmingham, explained: "In this study, we found for the first time that fibroblasts - cells that play a critical role in healing - also play a key role in the process of the formation of tertiary lymphoid structures, which are small clusters of blood and tissue cells found at the sites of chronic inflammation.

"Inflammation is the body's process of fighting against things that harm it, such as infections, injuries, and toxins, in an attempt to heal itself. When something damages cells, our bodies releases chemicals that trigger a response from our immune system.

"This response usually lasts for a few hours or days in the case of acute inflammation, however in chronic inflammation the response lingers, leaving your body in a constant state of alert. Chronic inflammation occurs in a range of conditions from cancer to arthritis and autoimmune conditions - illnesses or disorders that occur when healthy cells get destroyed by the body's own immune system."

Dr Joana Campos, also of the University of Birmingham, added: "Tertiary lymphoid structures are believed to play a key role in the progression of autoimmune conditions such as Sjögren's Syndrome - a condition that affects parts of the body that produce fluids like tears and spit.

"Previously research has not identified the role fibroblasts play in the formation and maintenance of tertiary lymphoid structures.

"We proved that fibroblasts expand and acquire immunological features in a process that is dependent on two cytokines - substances which are secreted by cells including fibroblasts in the immune system."

Dr Francesca Barone, also of the University of Birmingham, said: "Our research has led us to conclude that, by re-purposing already existing drugs or combining therapies, we could use these medications to directly target immune cells and fibroblasts to attack these cytokines in patients who have difficult to treat autoimmune diseases in which the formation of tertiary lymphoid structures plays a critical role.

"Our findings were surprising and unexpected and have addressed functional questions that the science community has been trying to address since tertiary lymphoid structures were first discovered."

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For more information please contact Emma McKinney, Communications Manager (Health Sciences), University of Birmingham, Email: e.j.mckinney@bham.ac.uk or tel: +44 (0) 121 414 6681, or contact the press office on +44 (0) 7789 921 165 or pressoffice@contacts.bham.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world's top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • Nayar et al (2019). 'Immuno-fibroblasts are pivotal drivers of tertiary lymphoid structure formation and local pathology'. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Authors of this research were Saba Nayar, Joana Campos, Charlotte Smith, Valentina Iannizzotto, David Gardner, Frédéric Mourcin, David Roulois, Jason Turner, Marvin Sylvestre, Saba Asam, Bridget Glaysher, Simon Bowman, Douglas Fearon, Andrew Filer, Karin Tarte, Sanjiv Luther, Benjamin Fisher, Christopher Buckley, Mark Coles and Francesca Barone.
  • The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:
    • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
    • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
    • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
    • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
    • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy
  • The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

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