Well-Being Medical Advances

Experimental therapy shows promise against autoimmune disease

Researchers took T cells from patients and modified them to be able to recognize faulty B cells.
hand holding syringe taking blood sample

Story at a glance

  •  Autoimmune diseases are when the body’s cells attack other healthy cells in the body.

  • One strategy for treating these diseases is to modify immune cells.

  • A team of researchers tested this on a handful of lupus patients with promising results.

A new autoimmune therapy harnesses a person’s own cells to find and correct other defective cells – an answer for patients who haven’t responded to other treatments and a possible cure for diseases like lupus.   

Autoimmune diseases are conditions where the body’s immune system attacks other cells in the body and causes symptoms like inflammation. This happens through autoantibodies, or antibodies that attack the self, produced by a type of white blood known as B cells. 

New research tests a type of immunotherapy where T cells, another type of white blood cell, are edited to root out the defective B cells. 

In a study published in Thursday Nature, researchers genetically modified and reinjected immune cells from patients – meaning each person got their own cells back as a treatment. In this type of therapy, called CAR T cell therapy, T cells are changed to recognize a specific protein on the surface of B cells, the ones that produce antibodies that wrongly attack healthy cells. 

The team was able to do this for five lupus patients with median age of 22 years old.  

After about 100 days, the patients were able to produce new B cells that didn’t make autoantibodies. Patients had drug-free remission for a median of eight months post-treatment, up to 12 months. 

“This is as close to a cure as I can see,” says Hoang Nguyen, who is senior scientific program manager at the Lupus Research Alliance and wasn’t involved in the study, to Wired. “They corrected the cells that produce antibodies against the body’s own tissues.” 

These results are promising for lupus patients who may not respond to other treatments. The CAR T therapy is an expensive procedure because it is customized for each patient. The team plans more studies including patients with other types of autoimmune diseases.