Scientists have discovered a small molecule capable of manipulating the balance of the immune system. This could have many applications in those with an unbalanced immune system, such as those with autoimmune diseases, which have an over active immune system.

When the body recognises a foreign antigen, the immune system is alerted and the pro-inflammatory cells that boost the immune system are activated. One of these cells is called an effector T cell, responsible for bolstering the immune system when it is under attack. An anti-inflammatory cell called a regulatory T cell helps control the immune system and prevents it from attacking healthy parts of its environment.

The scientists from the Gladstone Institutes, have identified a small molecule that was capable of converting these two types of cells into one another, showing promise for drug development.

“Our findings could have a significant impact on the treatment of autoimmune diseases, as well as on stem cell and immuno-oncology therapies,” said Gladstone Senior Investigator Sheng Ding, PhD, who is also a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.

Further research could result in exceptional results for immuno-oncology treatments because cancer often suppresses the immune system to avoid destruction. If a drug could increase the amount of effector T cells compared to regulatory T cells, the immune system would be better equipped to tackle cancer.

“Our work could also contribute to ongoing efforts in immuno-oncology and the treatment of cancer,” explained Tao Xu, a postdoctoral scholar in Ding’s laboratory and first author of the study. “This type of therapy doesn’t target the cancer directly, but rather works on activating the immune system so it can recognize cancer cells and attack them.”

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